Dazed and confused? Not me. I’m just Lost in the Cheese Aisle.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013


It was September 1952, and Richard Nixon was in hot water.

Nixon was then running for Vice President on the Republican ticket under Dwight Eisenhower.  With his campaign people already looking ahead to 1956 with what the Smith System people call the “see the big picture” mindset, his campaign treasurer suggested setting up a fund to reimburse Nixon for expenses relating to campaigning: long-distance phone calls, travel in excess of normal reimbursement, campaign materials, et alia. Contributions would be limited to $1,000 per contributor, with their identities not known to the candidate.  By today’s standards, an extremely tame operation.

But as news of the fund became known to the media, the tone of the reportage took a nasty turn when Leo Katcher of the New York Post wrote a piece that portrayed the fund as a “secret rich men’s trust fund” intended to keep Nixon “in style far beyond his salary.”  This tone was picked up and amplified in subsequent news stories, with the whole affair developing quickly into a scandal.  With influential newspapers like the Washington Post editorializing against Nixon’s remaining on the ticket, the putative Veep’s political future hung by a thread.

Rather than sit passively by and watch the tide of public opinion wash his career away, Nixon, on the advice of the RNC, fought back with a brilliantly crafted speech.  Delivered on September 23 - the RNC paid for the airtime so they would have full control of the broadcast - Nixon’s speech was a masterstroke, explaining the rationale for the campaign fund and the expenses for which it was (and was not) used... and requesting that listeners contact the RNC with their opinion on whether Nixon should remain on the ticket.  And listeners there were a-plenty: Over sixty million people heard the speech or watched it on the then-nascent medium, television.

Nixon crafted a narrative on which he hung the main points of his speech, and that narrative had to do with his relatively modest salary as a public servant.  Unlike his opponents who came from moneyed backgrounds or who resorted to gambits such as putting their wives on the payroll, he needed the help of his supporters to pay for campaign expenses.  He went the total disclosure route, listing his (meager) assets and his debts, including a loan he had taken out from his parents.  And the Nixons, people of modest means, dressed accordingly: “Pat doesn’t have a mink coat. But she does have a respectable Republican cloth coat. And I always tell her that she’d look good in anything.”

But the speech’s clincher came when he described a gift that he had received from a supporter, a gift that he had no intention of parting with:
“A man down in Texas heard Pat on the radio mention the fact that our two youngsters would like to have a dog. And, believe it or not, the day before we left on this campaign trip we got a message from Union Station in Baltimore saying they had a package for us. We went down to get it. You know what it was?
“It was a little cocker spaniel dog in a crate that he’d sent all the way from Texas. Black and white spotted. And our little girl - Tricia, the 6-year old - named it Checkers. And you know, the kids, like all kids, love the dog and I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we’re gonna keep it.”
Checkers!  Man’s best friend!  Fuck the critics, we’re keeping it!

The speech was, somewhat to the astonishment of the parties involved, a roaring success: The Republican National Committee eventually received something on the order of four million letters, postcards, telegrams, and phone calls, an overwhelming majority in support of Nixon.  And while Nixon’s critics considered the speech maudlin and even phony in its emotional appeal, it nevertheless struck a chord with a goodly chunk of the populace.  Eisenhower and the RNC were no fools.  Nixon remained on the ticket, and a few weeks later, the Republicans trounced the Democratic Stevenson-Sparkman team.

Nixon made the Fund Speech required reading for all his speechwriters, though he disliked the popular nickname by which it came to be known almost universally: the “Checkers Speech.”  (Why, after all, should the dog get all the credit?)  And his retort, when pundits would blame backlash from the Checkers Speech for Nixon’s narrow loss to Kennedy in the 1960 Presidential election, was that without that speech he wouldn’t have been around to run in 1960 in the first place.  Unto this day, the term “Checkers Speech” is used to denote a highly emotional political speech... and it is at best a left-handed compliment in most contexts.

* * *

A couple of weeks ago, the Missus and I were on Long Island with my brother, the Other Elisson - our second destination in a massive nineteen-day Epic Road Trip that brought us from Atlanta to Foat Wuth to New York to Boston and then home.  When the Other Elisson offhandedly mentioned that Checkers was buried in Wantagh, the very town in which he lives, I knew we would have to make a pilgrimage to visit the Dog That Saved Nixon.

The Bide-a-Wee Pet Cemetery, as it happens, is manageable walking distance from my brother’s place, though we had no intention of hoofing it over there on that sweltering afternoon.  We drove, parking in the shade in a modest attempt to keep the car’s interior from heating up like a blast furnace.

Bide-a-Wee Panorama
A panoramic view of the Bide-a-Wee Pet Cemetery in Wantagh, NY. [Click to embiggen.]

It is a huge place, this Bide-a-Wee affair, stretching across the width and length of several football fields.  The numerous headstones would make football a risky and unpleasant proposition in any event.  No: the people who visit Bide-a-Wee are there to visit the final resting places of their Animal Companions, the creatures that loved them (or at least tolerated them) unconditionally during their all-too-brief lives.

An inspection of the headstones reveals their quality to be entirely on a par with those in most human cemeteries, despite the smaller size of most of the individual burial plots (those for horses being a rare exception).  Like human grave markers, many are adorned with religious symbology - crucifixes, saintly images, Stars of David, et al.  Only the names - Boots, Mittens, Pal, Toby, Major, and the like - provide a clue as to the non-human nature of the occupants of this particular Bury Patch.

A “Meowsoleum” offers an above-ground interment option.

As we wandered amongst the stones, we came upon what could have only been a “Meowsoleum” - an above-ground repository for pet remains.  They think of everything!

The three of us could have spent an eternity (hah!) looking around for Checkers’s resting place, but She Who Must Be Obeyed had the bright idea to look on the Internet to see if there were any clues.  The only thing we could find was a reference to “Plot 5,” so we focused our searchly efforts on Section 5.  Sure enough...

Checkers Nixon, 1952-64.  Quoth Bide-a-Wee: “We’re gonna keep it.”

There are, clearly enough, people who make the pilgrimage to visit the grave of this black-and-white cocker spaniel, a creature enshrined in the political history of this nation: The grave is festooned with flowers, American flags, and various dolls.  (It was also festooned with weeds, but SWMBO yanked those out.)  But of all the visitors Checkers has had over the years, none of them have been from the Nixon family, alas.

They - whoever “they” are - say that the Dog is Man’s Best Friend.  Well, that may or may not be true, but Checkers was certainly Richard Nixon’s best friend.  I leave it as an intellectual exercise for my Esteemed Readers to imagine a world in which Nixon had been booted off the Republican ticket in 1952.  The possibilities are endless... why not leave your speculations in the Comments? 

Tuesday, July 30, 2013


Chez Elisson
Chez Elisson, as it appeared two years ago - pretty much the same as it is now.

Today is a minor anniversary of sorts: it marks fifteen years since we closed on this, our latest Chez Elisson.

Fifteen years in one place - fully one-quarter of my lifespan.  Astonishing!  Even as a member of a relatively settled suburban family growing up, I never lived in one house that long... until now.  And how strange that that residence should be located here in May-Retta, Jawjuh, a mere seven miles and change from the Big Chicken... and the spot where Leo Frank was lynched in 1915.

Life is strange, I tells ya.


We’ve just returned from a lengthy Road Trip, the likes of which I have not endured enjoyed for thirty-nine years.  Over the course of nineteen days, we covered roughly four thousand miles in the process of traversing seventeen states, all in the aubergine-colored SWMBOMobile.

Our buttocks are sore from all that Sit-Down Time, but there is a lot to be said for seeing the country rather than merely flying over it.  The scenery along I-81, which runs through Pennsylvania, a few thin slices of Maryland and West Virginia, then down the backbone of Virginia along the Shenandoah Valley, alone is enough to make the trip worthwhile.

One of the little treasures we brought back with us (along with a prodigious amount of road dirt and windshield Bug-Guts) was a collection of etched glass goblets and tumblers handed down from SWMBO’s late grandmother.  Lookee:

Granny Glasses
Etched Depression-era glasses... not depressing at all.

These had been sitting in a dusty cardboard box in the Missus’s mom’s garage, along with all manner of other detritus that we (by which I mean the Missus) cleaned out and disposed of during our visit.  (The kind folks at Goodwill were elated, as were those at Waste Management.)

It’s a bit of a mish-mash, this glassy little treasure trove, but there are tumblers, water glasses, wine glasses, and a few cocktail coupes.  I can’t wait to mix up an Aviation and serve it up in one of these beauties... and drink to the memory of SWMBO’s Nanny Z., who, alas, has been gone from this world for over twenty years.

Monday, July 22, 2013


While we were visiting with Eli (hizzownself) at the Long Island State Veterans Home yesterday, he recounted a hair-raising little story.  I had heard it before - in fact, I had written about it before at my old site - but I never got tired of hearing it.

To set the scene, let’s wind the clock back to sometime around 1976 or ’77.  I had, by that time, moved away to Houston, there to work for the Great Corporate Salt Mine; the rest of the family was still living in Massapequa, New York, in a quiet part of Nassau Shores hard by the local nine-hole golf course.

The house in which we were living was one of fewer than a half-dozen low-slung contemporary ranches that had been built by a fellow by the name of Abbott.  Our second residence in the neighborhood, we had moved there in the summer of 1967.  (For some, it may have been the Summer of Love, but for me, it was the Summer of Schlepping All My Crap to the New House Three Blocks Away.)  The street - West Pocahontas Street - was short, extending from West Shore Drive on one end to Sunset Drive on the other.  Beyond Sunset Drive lay the third hole of the golf course.

Alec Baldwin and his numerous siblings lived one block north, at the corner of Iroquois and Sunset, but for some reason they and their friends preferred to congregate at the corner of Pocahontas and Sunset - the end of our street.  (Alec - Zander to his Berner High School compatriots - had been class president in his senior year; by this time he was away at school and no longer hanging around with the rest of his siblings.)

I had never had many dealings with the Baldwins while I was living in Massapequa, mainly because Alec, the eldest of the boys, was a full six years younger than me and thus not on my radar screen. But sometime in the mid-1970’s, his brother Danny - possibly along with some of the other Baldwins and their friends - discovered that, with little effort, they could hoist themselves up on the roof of our house.  Said roof was gently sloped and was a mere seven feet above ground on the eastern side of the house.  Once on the roof, Danny would run around, a source of profound amusement to him and his friends - and a source of intense irritation to my parents, who would (presumably) run outside and chase him away.

This went on, intermittently, for months... until the day when Eli decided that he had Had Enough.

Here’s the story, as he tells it:

“I couldn’t take him any more... and one day, I remember I had that red Cadillac with the white top, the Coupe de Ville... anyway, I got in that car, and I noticed at the end of the street, on Sunset Drive where the fence was for the golf course, there were about fifteen kids in a little mob, standing around together.  And out of the fifteen kids, most of them were Baldwins.  And I said, ‘Aha!  In a fell swoop, I’d rid myself of the Baldwins!’

“Really!  This is a true story - I’m not proud of it, but it’s true!

“I put my foot on the accelerator - you know how short that street was from our house to the fence? - I floored the accelerator, and I’m going, like sixty miles an hour right at those kids, and I said to myself, ‘Holy shit, do you know what you’re doing?  You’ll spend the rest of your life in jail, and these little bastards will still be playing golf!  That’s so dumb,’ I said, ‘for Christ’s sake, stop it!’

“I took my foot off [the gas] and stepped on the brake - I went slamming... sliding... the brake pads were locked and I was sliding towards them, and thankfully I stopped - inches from their quaking little bodies, which had little touches of specially designed underwear - what we call the ‘Peanut Butter’ design.”

Me: “You scared the shit out of them.”

“That’s exactly right.  They looked at me, and they looked at the car, and they saw what had happened, and they said, ‘Holy shit!  This whacko is gonna do it one day!  We better cut it out - we can’t fool around with him any more!’  And that was the end of the running on the roof.”  

Years later, Danny got a job with a local landscaping operation, and, as fate would have it, they were doing a job at our house.  He rang the doorbell, and when my mother came out, he introduced himself... and apologized for all of that roof-running mischief.  Nary a mention was made of Dad’s automotive exploit - perhaps, by then, he had forgotten it.  But one can only imagine the unpleasant consequences had Eli not had that last-minute attack of conscience that kept him from turning most of the Baldwin brothers into a grease spot at the end of Pocahontas Street West.

As he says, it’s not a story he’s proud of, but it is true, nonetheless!

Postscriptum: I was surprised to discover that Danny Baldwin, for a time, had dated the youngest sister of one of my long-term classmates (I was also surprised to discover that this sister, fully ten years younger than my friend, actually existed). She characterized him as prone to doing foolish things, but possessing a good heart. So there’s that.

Sunday, July 14, 2013


Was it really a year ago that we saw the walls of the Old City for the first time and watched the sun set over the western hills?  Has it been that long since we first watched the jubilation at the Kotel ha-Ma’aravi - the Western Wall - as the fading glow of falling dusk heralded the arrival of Shabbat?

Yes.  Yes, it has.  And we are forever changed.

Friday, July 12, 2013


This morning, I took William and Madison, my young nephew and niece, to a late breakfast at that southern standby of Chicken-Based Fast Foods, Chick-Fil-A. It was a breakfast sufficiently late that breakfasty menu items were no longer available; accordingly, the youngsters had what could better be described as an early lunch.

We got more than we bargained for.

My suspicions were aroused when, as we were navigating the parking lot, we saw an entire family get out of their car, each one dressed in some sort of demented Cow Costume.  And they were not the only ones.  Once inside the restaurant, we saw that all of the staff were decked out in dopey paper Cow-Hats... and customers continued to stream in, many in some sort of Bovine Habiliment.

 photo null-1.jpg
“Hey, kids - let’s act like Completely Normal People today! Except maybe for the ‘wearing a cow face’ part.”

Turns out we had stumbled upon a special occasion, concocted solely by, and for the benefit of, Chick-Fil-A: Cow Appreciation Day.

Chick-Fil-A, as my Esteemed Readers know, is well-known for its advertising campaign, which features cows engaging in all sorts of chicanery in order to get people to eat chicken in lieu of beef.  This is, of course, complete bull (you should excuse the expression) shit.  First of all, cows are not used primarily for their meat, but rather for their milk.  And even if their attempt to throw chickens under the bus is driven by their desire to save others of their species - steers - it’s still difficult to imagine cows possessed of that level of self-awareness.  Whither bovine placidity?

In any event, our morning repast featured entertainment in the form of a person of indeterminate sex wearing an oversized cow outfit, costumery that amused some children and terrified others.  (It is, after all, no great intellectual leap to go from “Person Attired as Large Bovine” to “Scary Clown.”)  The other entertainment consisted of that significant fraction of the clientele that chose to Cow Up - mainly for the free food they would receive for having done so.  Advertising promotion, weird cultic observance - who can say?

 photo null-2.jpg
“Today is the day we all dress as popular protein sources... Charlie got to be a hunk of cheese.”

As I told William, “I never know what I’m going to write about on any given day... but stories just seem to show up, don’t they?”

Thursday, July 11, 2013


Whenever the Missus and I go on a lengthy Road Trip, the issue of what to eat will inevitably raise its ugly head.

We always hit the road with a good supply of Snacky Goodies. Cold beverages, bottled water, nuts, mini-meals, et cetera - were we blessed with an infinitude of bladder capacity, we could theoretically drive all day without having to stop and eat. But even if we do not need sustenance at regular intervals, the SWMBO-Mobile does... at least, until they get around to inventing that Mr. Fusion garbage-to-energy converter from Back to the Future. (They’ve got just one year left. Time to get busy!)

THis means that, every couple of hours, we pull off the highway for a Pee-Break, a Refueling Stop, a Snack-Break, or some combination of the three.

Some of our stops land us at various fast food outlets, where you can generally count on clean restrooms and drinkable (if not palatable) coffee. As a rule, we don’t do the Fast Food Thing when we’re at home, so this is the opportunity for us to indulge those all-too-rare nostalgic and/or guilty pleasures. Quarter Pounder with cheese! Frosty! Bring it on!

Except now, McDonald’s has begun posting calorie counts on their menus. On the menu, that is, not buried in some you-gotta-ask-for-it literature. Getting a jump on Federal legislation, I’m betting. And the numbers are, in a word, horrifying. When you see a four-digit calorie count next to a frickin’ breakfast item (never mind the burgers, fries, and shakes!) it has a pronounced appetite-dulling effect. There’s no way I want to gobble up three quarters of my daily calorie allotment before nine in the morning... yeef!

I’ll just drain the lizard and have a cup of coffee, thanks.

Then there are the truck stops and Fuel Plazas... kind of like a theme park of Road Life. The food choices there are downright staggering. Jack Link’s Beef Jerky? Check. Sasquatch sausage? Check. Klondike bars? Check. And then, you have these:

Big Papa and Big Mama. Yeef!

Whoever thought to name a picked sausage “Big Mama,” I have no idea... but that dinky thing ain’t gonna impress any Big Mama I know. All I will tell you is, these items are on my list of Foods to be Eaten Only in the Aftermath of a Nuclear Holocaust.

Road Food - gotta love it!

Wednesday, July 10, 2013


Yet more stuff that should be in the dictionary but isn’t.

Long-time readers of my previous site may recall the Blog d’Elisson Dictionary, installments of which may be found in that site’s Archives.  For other entries in the Cheese Aisle Dictionary, simply click on the sidebar link for Cheese-Dic.

And now, the Word of the Day:

baster’d child [bas-terd child] (n) - A child conceived through the use of artificial insemination.

“Bruce and Sheila tried to have a kid for years. Finally, Bruce got himself checked out - turns out he was shooting blanks. But they went to the clinic and now they have a wonderful baster’d child... little Aimee will be three next month!”

Tuesday, July 9, 2013


Robo-Spam comments are kinda sorta like barnacles - no matter how many times you scrape your ship’s hull clean, eventually they will reappear, and, like barnacles, they can constitute a major Pain in the Arse.

I love the way the spam-writers attempt to ingratiate themselves with you.  Perhaps (they think) if I flatter this guy enough, or if I sound like I’m asking a technical question, he’ll leave my comment alone and ignore its links to spammy websites packed full of malware.  But, no.

You’ve seen ’em, of course.  They look like this:

“I am really glad I have discover your blog-ωebsite and it’s excellently ωritten informations!  Your expertise is very large, and I ωill visit this site with a great frequency.  Also, it loads very fast.  Please visit my site: dirtbags-r-us.spambot.ru”

When I get one - or a pile of ’em, since they seem to travel in packs - I am tempted to read ’em aloud in that Festrunk Brothers accent, the one Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd made famous.  “We are two ωild and crazy guys, and ωe love your blog!”  Yeah, right.


Saturday, July 6, 2013


Eddie was in trouble. He had left the house Thursday evening, ostensibly to pick up a quart of milk. Instead, he had gone on a three-day bender, catching a flight to Vegas and packing in enough gambling, drinking, and hell-raising to weary a regiment.

His immediate problem was how to explain things to his wife. Madge’s reaction would be extremely unpleasant unless he could come up with something convincing.

He stopped in the backyard to pluck a ripe falsehood, grabbing a handful of lies, inventions, fibs, and a cock-and-bull story for insurance.

Thank God for my Fabrication Garden, thought Eddie.

Thursday, July 4, 2013


“Nostalgia is a dish best served old.” - Elisson

Lately, I’ve been spending time in a Facebook group consisting of peeps from the Old Hometown.  It’s a great place to reconnect with old friends and acquaintances, to revisit pleasant memories of our Snot-Nose Years, and to lament about how much things have changed since then.  Simply put, it is a massive Nostalgia-Wallow, and I mean that in the nicest possible way.

Some of the discussion threads revolve around the history of the area, with especial focus on those years we were of school age.  Other threads have more to do with 1960’s and ’70’s culture, old advertisements, favorite restaurants, that kind of stuff.  And sometimes childhood activities will surface.  Any and all of these topics can provoke a veritabobble firestorm of memory-laden commentary.

Someone recently brought up a sporting activity that, back in the day, was popular among a certain segment of the population.  It was a winter sport, one that required streets encrusted with icy snow... and it was most definitely illicit.

I refer to the time-honored sport of skitching.

If you are not from Long Island, you are probably scratching your head and saying to yourself, “Skitching?  WTF is skitching?”  And not everyone on Long Island is familiar with it.

Skitching is the act of grabbing the rear bumper of a vehicle on a snowy street, generally without the knowledge of the driver or passengers, when it is stopped at a stop sign or traffic signal.  When the vehicle begins moving again, the skitcher hangs on, sliding along the street in the manner of a skateboarder sans skateboard.  An expert skitcher could ride along for over a mile without being detected by the driver or seen by any of the local constabulary, simultaneously avoiding being squished by the vehicle being ridden, by other vehicles, or hitting a dry patch on the pavement. And a manhole cover?  Fuhgeddaboudit.  There was, as one of my old neighbors points out, an art to it.

Cars were fair game, as were mail trucks and school buses - the latter especially desirable because the high bumper was just right for hitching a skitch unseen by the driver.  UPS trucks had a ledge on the back where you could sit if you got tired.  All you needed was a good pair of old, worn-out boots - and a fierce grip. 

One kid remembered his gloves freezing to the metal bumper of a car when he was skitching. When he let go, the gloves stayed, stuck firmly to the bumper. Another recalled trying to latch on to a car and finding a pair of frozen gloves on the bumper - presumably the same gloves, but who knows?

There are plenty of stories.  The time two guys grabbed a car’s bumper and inadvertently yanked it right off.  The time a driver stopped to run a brace of skitchers off, only to have her purse fall out onto the pavement.  Or when there were so many “hangers-on” on one car, they actually had to push it to get it going.  Crazy.

Skitching was, as noted above, an art... and, like graffiti tagging, one that was frowned on by the gendarmes.  The end of our street was a popular spot for the local Skitch-Crew to grab rides: there was a stop sign and bushes behind which the aspiring skitcher could lurk.  And the local champion skitcher was one Stephen Baldwin*, who was downright audacious.  There’s a story about a time when a cop caught Stephen skitching behind a school bus.  Rather than dragging him down to the precinct house, the officer decided to deliver unto him a stern lecture, presumably on the danger (and illegality) of the activity.  After the lengthy harangue, the cop drove away... with Stephen clinging fast to his rear bumper.

*Yes, that Stephen Baldwin.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013


...is temporarily defunct.

You can thank Google, who in their great corporate wisdom decided to deep-six Google Reader, which I had been using to manage my blogroll after Bloglines went belly-up.

With the explosive growth in social media, RSS accumulators like Reader just aren’t sexy any more, never mind that I rarely used it for that purpose.  For me, it was just an easy way to display my vast heap of bloggity links.

I’m looking for a reasonably easy way to reconstruct my blogroll.  At the same time, I most likely will ditch the 80% of the blogs on it that are no longer active.  “For old times’ sake” is a crappy reason to keep someone’s site on the sidebar, especially considering the fact that blogging is an ever more moribund platform, one that is steadily losing ground to Facebook and Twitter.

And that’s too bad.  Twitter (“Blogging for People with ADHD”) is OK as far as it goes, but Facebook is a very different animal, involving as it does an audience that you select for yourself.  What impressed me about blogging was (and still is) its ability to create communities solely on the strength of peoples ideas... and their ability to express them in an engaging manner.

There are still a few workable links on my sidebar... the rest will have to wait until I find a suitable replacement aggregator/blogroll manager.  Hard-coding?  That’s for chumps.

Update: Fixed!  I’ve migrated my RSS feeds to AOL Reader (for now) - it’s pretty much a drop-in for Google Reader.  As for the blogrolls, I was able to pull my old list into some new widgets that get the job done just fine.  Next step will be to comb through the lists and ditch anything that hasn’t been updated in, say, a year.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013


As one of the regular attendees at our morning minyan, one of my roles is to help officiate at the Torah readings that make up part of our services on Mondays, Thursdays, and miscellaneous holidays. I call up those who have the honor of saying the blessings at the beginning and end of each reading; I help the reader correct any inadvertent errors (easy enough to make when you consider that the text is consonants only - vowels and cantillation notes must be committed to memory); and I chant the Mi-Shebeirakh prayer on behalf of those who are ill.

The Mi-Shebeirakh (“He Who blessed...”) invokes the aid of the Almighty One in bringing complete healing to the sick. Traditionally, the names of those who are in need of healing are recited aloud, with members of the congregation stepping forward to include their friends and loved ones. To make sure we have all the bases covered, I also keep a list of names on the reading table.

Once your name is on that list, there are only two ways to get off.  The first (and vastly preferable) way is to get better - to have your health improve to the point where you no longer are in need of special divine intervention.  The second (far less preferable) way is to shuffle along to the Olam ha-Ba - the Next World.

Alas, over the years I’ve had to remove all too many names from the list for the second reason.

Last night, we received the sad news that a former Minyan Regular had passed away.  Michael had been ailing for years, and finally an infection had come along that his body was unable to fight off.

Years ago, I had written a post about him... because it is entirely possible that you have seen his face before.  That is, if you’re old enough to remember this Federal Express ad from back in the day:

Yes, that’s Michael picking up that phone booth.  (He had help, in the form of a crane.)  Remember phone booths?

When he was younger, they called him Royteh, on account of his red hair.  He had a temperament to match, but you’d never know it - unless you dared to call him “Mikey.”

We’ll miss you, Michael... ave atque vale!

Michael Solomon, RIP
The late Michael Solomon, 1943-2013. Barukh dayan emet.

Monday, July 1, 2013


Chihuly Ceiling, Bellagio
Dale Chihuly glassworks ceiling, Bellagio lobby.

...mostly stays in Vegas.  But a few tidbits of information, on occasion, may be permitted to escape.

Las Vegas, which bills itself as the Entertainment Capital of the World, is America’s original Sin City.  It’s a freewheeling adult Theme Park that would make Walt Disney blush (and probably did on several occasions).  In years long past, Vegas was where you’d go if you wanted to drink, whore, and gamble.  Then the Mob moved in and invented the idea of the conjoint Hotel and Casino with the best entertainment Hollywood had to offer.  The place exploded... and not just because the AEC was busily testing atomic bombs at the Nevada Test Site a mere 65 miles away.  Meanwhile, other gambling hotspots such as Galveston, Texas and Hot Springs, Arkansas withered on the vine.

I first visited the fabled city in the summer of 1974 as a newly minted college graduate off on a cross-country road trip.  My traveling companion and I bunked in at a cheap motel in nearby Henderson, which was fine since we spent almost no time there, choosing instead to stay up all night pissing away dollar blackjack bets in the cheesy casinos in downtown Vegas.  The rest of the time was spent exploring the locales mentioned in Hunter S. Thompson’s just-published magnum opus of Gonzo Journalism, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  Circus Circus, in particular, was a must-see: what Thompson described as “what the whole hep world would be doing Saturday night if the Nazis had won the war.”  Indeed.

When I returned in 1993, almost two decades later, it was to a vastly different Las Vegas.  The venerable old hotels on the Strip were gradually being demolished, replaced with newer, larger ones like the Mirage, Luxor, and Excalibur.  Treasure Island was a week away from opening; the new MGM Grand was under construction.  At one point I dragged the Missus and kids off to see Circus Circus, which had, in the intervening years, become even cheesier - a sad parody of its (already ridiculous) earlier self.  The whole place - the Strip, anyway - was beginning to take on the air of a Bizarro World theme park.

This past week, after another two-decade gap, we (along with a small army of friends) returned to Las Vegas for an early celebration of SWMBO’s sixtieth birthday.  The place had changed to the point of being almost unrecognizable.  The luxury hotel-casino building boom that had been kicked off in the late 1980’s with Steve Wynn’s innovation of financing with junk bonds had, if anything, picked up steam, and the entire Strip was lined with glitzy new properties: The Wynn and sister hotel Encore; the Venetian and sister Palazzo; the Cosmopolitan; the Bellagio; Mandalay Bay; Paris.  The venerable Flamingo was still there, though we did not set foot in it.  Bally’s (formerly the old MGM Grand, the one that suffered a devastating fire in 1980) and Harrah’s were still there too, a bit tired and worn.  New York New York was just plain loud and obnoxious, in what some might say was an attempt to be faithful to its namesake city. And Caesar’s was still Caesar’s... bigger and more bombastic than ever.

Casino at Encore
The relatively sedate casino at the Encore... quite unlike the zoo at New York New York.

One other noticeable change from twenty years ago: Slot machines (which I typically avoid) have gotten ever more gaudy and complex, thanks to advances in Ars Electronica.  No longer do you see elderly women running around with cups of loose quarters - it’s now a coinless business, which to me removes much of the charm of the old One-Armed Bandit.  Now the machines have a myriad of ridiculous over-the-top graphics and themes, and you need an advanced degree to figure out how to play ’em.

Downtown Vegas, well north of the Strip, is still downtown Vegas.  Older and grittier, it’s still where the serious old-school gamblers go - the ones who aren’t there for the shows and glitz.  They want action, and the only food they need is your basic Cheap-Ass Buffet.  For them, it’s the Four Queens, the Golden Nugget, and the legendary Binion’s, and they don’t give Shit One that Fremont Street (the first paved street in Las Vegas) has been converted into a covered pedestrian mall - with ziplines, yet. 

We had selected Vegas as our destination because it is the only place where one might see Cirque du Soleil’s Love, a show based on the collected works of the Beatles that uses as its soundtrack a marvelous remix of the original audiotapes by George Martin, the Beatles’ original producer, and his son Giles.  (The show was brilliant - my favorite Cirque du Soleil performance ever and well up on my personal list of Best Shows Ever.)  During our stay we were also able to see Jersey Boys and Jubilee! - the former a Broadway jukebox musical-cum-documentary, the latter an old-school Vegas  Big Production burlesque show complete with elaborate headdresses, feathers, rhinestones, and titties.  Lotsa, lotsa titties - eighty-five sets of ’em. Good Gawd Awmighty.  And we even got to see SWMBO’s stepbrother Craig perform at La Scala Restaurant, where he does a regular Saturday evening lounge gig, a favorite with the locals.

The Ridiculous Lion.
As for our home base, we stayed at the stupendous! colossal! humongous! MGM Grand, the second largest hotel in the world (there’s one in Moscow that’s bigger) and home to what Elder Daughter dubbed “The Ridiculous Lion.”  If you cared to, you could spend an entire vacation without ever leaving the MGM property: it was a whole fucking city under one roof, complete with whatever kind of entertainment your shriveled little heart might desire.  But we did indeed leave the property, at one point even walking across the street to check out the Hooters Casino-Hotel (yes, it really exists) and its tasty, low-rent provender.

We did take the time to look at some of the surrounding area, heading out to Red Rock Canyon on our last day to take in the scenery... just as a record-setting heat wave came sliding in.  It amazes me how a landscape so desolate and desiccated can, at the same time, be so beautiful.

Red Rock Canyon HDR
Red Rock Canyon.

As the weekend approached with temperatures creeping up north of 115°F and the onslaught of a mob of young Beliebers attending a Justin Bieber concert at our hotel (yeef!), we knew it was time to get the hell out of Dodge. Our week-long stay was the longest single stretch we’ve ever spent in Sin City, but we enjoyed it all.  Where else can you experience that weird Theme-Parky Vibe, see the strange mixture of slobs and toffs, the hordes of young women in their ink and muff-revealing short dresses, the drunks and revelers, the shiny surfaces, the top-flight food and entertainment, the Adult Gaming?  Where else, indeed.