Thursday, May 30, 2013

A VEGAS WEDDING - Day 2 - Getting Primed

The Tropicana is a grand old hotel, a little frayed at the edges perhaps, but it has all the bells and whistles, including a very nice restaurant called the Beach CafĂ©, featuring a yummy breakfast buffet and patio dining with waterfalls cascading off granite rocks surrounded by palm trees, expansive flower beds bursting with newly-planted petunias, and fearless house sparrows eating right from your plate.  It’s really quite romantic.

After breakfast, we roamed the hotel, trying to figure out what was where.  There was a pool tournament taking place somewhere in the cavernous joint and men and women of all ages were walking around with slick leather cases slung over their shoulders like snipers. There was an incredibly long line of caffeine zombies at the Starbucks.  And vacant-eyed people were already playing the slots and rolling the dice at the craps tables.  Vegas never sleeps.  Inna and I aren’t gamblers, but it was all very interesting, nonetheless.

Promptly at eleven, I went to the main desk to see if we could move to the room we had originally reserved overlooking the pool.  The young manager apologized profusely for the inconvenience, especially after I played the wedding card – “We’re getting married and it would be great if you could help us out.”  It worked every time like a charm.

We were told that our room would be ready by one.

For the next few hours we lounged around the pool which meandered like a blue amoeba through the interior gardens of the hotel and under the hotel walkways.  There was even a bar in the pool, so you could just swim around and drink until you turned into a prune.

When I went over to get a couple of towels I started talking to the pool manager and asked how they kept the pool cool in the heat of the summer?

“We circulate the water through the air conditioning system on the roof of the Club Tower.  It cools as it drops down through the building, plus, there’s a geothermal system under the pool so the temperature can be regulated in winter and summer.”

I instantly fell in love with the whole scene.  It was vintage Hollywood, with fresh white cotton covers over the chaise lounges and pool girls in skimpy outfits serving boat drinks. I could easily imagine Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and the old crew hanging with the whores as they downed their scotch and sodas and chain-smoked Lucky Strikes.

A little after one, we got a call that our balcony room was ready and we moved to the cabana section of the hotel, with a grand view of the pool.  It was definitely worth the wait.

Around two, Jimmy, Inna and I hopped in our silver SUV and headed over to the old part of town down in the Fremont section.  Our destination was the Clark County Government Center where we needed to pick up our marriage license.

On the way, we passed one of the most amazing buildings I have ever seen, a jumble of disjointed silver shapes piled on top of one another like melted metal.  We were gawking at the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, a $74 million project designed by my favorite architect, Frank Gehry, and funded by liquor distributor Larry Ruvo.  It made the Luxor look like a truck stop.

We parked near the marriage license building and as we tried to figure out where the parking sticker came out of the kiosk, a very nice fellow asked if we needed some help.  He explained that the parking space number lit up on the machine when time expired, so there were no tickets to place on your dashboard – yet another Vegas innovation.  He also pointed out that there were still two hours left for the spot where we had parked.

"It won't take more than thirty minutes to get your marriage license."

I'm not sure how he figured out we were getting a marriage license.  Perhaps our general confusion was a giveaway.

As we were walking toward the Clark County building, our new friend revealed his true intention.  "I work for a wedding chapel around the corner and if you need a good place to get married, I can definitely help you out."

I explained that we had already reserved a wedding ceremony for the next day.

He smiled devilishly and said, "Okay, well then, do you want to play a game?"

"What sort of game?" I asked.

"See all those guys standing in front of the Marriage Bureau?"

There were about ten men milling about with bored expressions at the corner of Clark and Third Street.

"All of those guys work for different wedding chapels around here.  If I hand you my brochure, they will come running up, offering you a better deal.  Want to play?"

"Sure," I said. "Why not?"

He handed me the brochure and every head in front of me suddenly snapped to attention, like an electric switch had just been turned on.  It was quite amusing.

I quickly explained to the group that I had reservations at a local chapel and it was non-refundable, so I wasn't interested in their offers.  The hawkers instantly deflated and continued their wedding patrol.

The Marriage Bureau was no different than where you might pay your city water bill, except for the large vase of flowers on the counter.  They looked quite nice, but I didn't want to spoil the moment by checking to see if they were real.  Afterall, it's the thought that counts.

The office is open from 8 AM until midnight. Marriage is big business in Vegas, and one never knows when the urge to get married will strike.   

There were only a few couples getting their licenses when we arrived, but they kept strolling in like clockwork. They fell into two categories: young love, and older folks with friends who seemed to be getting married on impulse or just for the hell of it.  To be honest, they all looked like train wrecks – it was hard to see these blessed unions lasting a month. But who's to say?  And for $60, it's as good a ride as most Vegas shows, and probably makes for a better story in the end.

We each filled out a marriage form, waited our turn, handed over our forms, answered a few questions from the pleasant clerk, and then verified the information.  We paid the fee and were given a temporary license (the real one would arrive by mail in a few weeks), and the marriage certificate in triplicate for the folks performing the wedding ceremony the next day.  With our paperwork finally complete, we happily walked hand-in-hand out into the hot Nevada sun.  And for the first time, the whole marriage thing seemed real.  We had really done it.  Well, taken the first step.  And I felt good.  No worries.

Our next stop was the Special Memories Wedding Chapel.  It was only a few blocks away, so we walked there.  Along the way, we passed a converted fire house where a Mexican wedding was in full swing.  

On the next block there was a complex of gaudy white wedding trailers with all sorts of hideous streamers and the like draped in the trees and along the battered and peeling fence out front.  There was a wedding chapel storefront office shoehorned between two bail bond services, and just up the street was a quaint little house that also doubled as a wedding chapel.  Wedding chapels come in all shapes and sizes in Las Vegas.  But there was no Elvis in sight.

The Special Memories Chapel looked like a cheesy cute, storybook country church with a faux steeple, a water fountain and gazebo. It had a tidy lawn wrapping around the front with manicured flower beds, and a fleet of shiny limousine.  We stopped in to confirm our reservation with the friendly staff, check out the small Celtic chapel where we would be married, and then we split.

By now, Inna was like a live wire. Her childhood friend Olga had arrived that morning with her husband Paul from Seattle and Inna was excited to hook up and party.

We drove back to the Tropicana, quickly changed into our dinner clothes, and then left to go pick up Olga and Paul at the Trump Colossus, or Trump World, or whatever "I am the biggest and the best" superlative The Donald has concocted for his golden tower in the sky.  The behemoth hotel is located about two thirds of the way up the strip and the drive at around six in the evening was essentially a creep-a-long parade, which was actually quite entertaining because it gave us all a chance to scope out the endlessly curious scenes from the air-conditioned comfort of our luxury automobile.

The only navigation problem when cruising around Vegas is scale versus distance.  Each resort is ginormous and invariably seems closer than it really is.  You turn down a street that you think will take you to your destination, only to discover that you turned too soon and are now headed for the freeway or a shopping mall.  And once you find the hotel, usually covering an entire city block or more, you still have to figure out where the front entrance is.  Add in lots of traffic, and it's like trying to solve a tricky riddle while dodging other cars.

We eventually found the Trump main portal and picked up Olga and Paul.  Jimmy and I introduced ourselves to Paul while Inna and Olga immediately launched into an animated Russian chat fest. Clearly, the two girls were in heaven and had a lot of catching up to do.

Our next destination was the Stratosphere, where Olga and Richard, from Bethesda, Maryland were staying.  The Stratosphere is a replica of the Space Needle in Seattle, and at the tippy top, the Level 107 Lounge perches above an upscale revolving restaurant.

For some reason, bars atop tall buildings around the world always feature martinis, and the Level 107 was no different.  They were offering a two-for-one happy hour special, showcasing six of their finest concoctions, along with half price appetizers.

As the sun set crimson over Mt. Wilson, the neon circus lights came alive and The Strip turned nighttime into some phantasmagorical world of make believe fun and games.  Looking down on Vegas is like staring into a kaleidoscope and will make you feel like you have super human powers and can drink all night.
Needless to say, it all eventually got pretty sketchy.  The whole place started spinning.  No, wait a minute, it was supposed to be spinning – a full revolution every hour or so, as I recall our friendly Stratosphere waitress telling us in between countless glasses of red wine and Newcastle beers.  But we were blindly heading down a slippery slope.  I mean, we were getting married the next day.  And being all hungover wasn't going to be the best way to experience such a solemn occasion.

Around midnight, we stepped back from the brink and called it a night.  It was a close call.  In fact, there even was talk about ordering a bottle of vodka.  But in the end, we came to our senses and went back to our respective hotels before the bottom dropped out.

The rest of the wedding guests had just flown in.  Everyone was sleepy.  Tomorrow was the big day.

As Inna got ready for our last night as a single couple, I stood on the balcony and basked in the peaceful tropical glow below our room.  I felt like I was down in the Islands with palm trees chattering in the breeze and the pool twinkling with diamond lights.

I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and made a wish that Inna and I could hold onto our happiness forever.

I went back inside, climbed into bed and fell asleep in Inna's arms, and I dreamed of rafting down the Colorado River in Grand Canyon.  I'm not sure what my last dream as a bachelor was meant to signify, but Grand Canyon is my favorite place in the whole wide world, so I'm thinking it was a pretty good sign.


Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A VEGAS WEDDING - Arriving A Bit Dazed


After six years of playing husband and wife, Inna and I decided to make it legal with a unique wedding ceremony in Las Vegas.  At 59, this would be my first marriage.  Inna has been the best thing that ever happened to me.  I knew it.  My friends knew it.  By now, even my stubborn, 92-year-old mother knew it.  And as the departure date grew closer, I found myself almost giddy with excitement.

                Inna and I both took off from work early and were heading for BWI Airport with our good buddy Jimmy Martin by 3, arriving two hours before our flight to Vegas.

                We had heard all sorts of horror stories about interminable waits at the airport because of the dreaded sequestration, so we were prepared for the worst.  Southwest was jammed but the whole check-in procedure only took about twenty minutes.  We joined the security snake line at Gate B and found the TSA folks to be both efficient and courteous.

                After putting our belts and shoes back on, we headed over to the Zona Mexicana for some dinner and a few tasty Pacificos. 

                The flight to Vegas took about 7 hours with a brief stop somewhere along the way – I can’t even remember where the hell it was – and we arrived in Sin City around 10 – 1 o’clock Maryland time.

                The airport was buzzing and the head-pounding TV screen ads for Cirque de Soleil, Blue Men, and an endless stream of don’t miss Vegas shows, made it all feel like we had just landed in a very amped OZ.

                We walked out into a warm desert night and caught the shuttle bus to the car rental facility a few miles away from the airport where we joined the long line at the busy Hertz store.

                Vegas excels at moving tourists efficiently and over the years I have seen them showcase many cutting edge technologies to make traveling more enjoyable.  For instance, they were the first to implement the handheld computer when you turn your car back in.  You pull up, they zap your car, out comes a bill, and you are on your way.

                After five minutes in the Hertz line, they turned on the slot machine agents.  We were directed to what resembled a gambling device with a telephone attached to the side.  We pressed the screen and up popped a friendly agent in – I have no idea where – who had us on our way in a matter of minutes.  We had ordered a full-sized car but they were out of cars.  So we got a brand new Chevy Traverse SUV that seated seven and resembled something that might transport the President.  This would prove to be an ace in the hole later on.

                I’ve been to Vegas many times and navigating the airport and then getting to the Strip was a breeze.  The neon views were intoxicating and the air smelled like flowers.

                Most of the wedding party was staying at the Tropicana, but everyone else was arriving the next day, so there was no one else to meet.  We parked around back and schlepped our bags to the front lobby.

                The Tropicana is old school – as in Rat Pack glory days.  It’s all retro reds and whites and has recently undergone an expensive face lift.  I chose it because it has a really cool pool, and with hot, sunny days in the forecast, it seemed like a good place to stay.  I also liked the fact that it isn’t a destination casino.  Meaning, people don’t drop in to check out the Tropicana, like they do at Caesars, Bellagio, Paris, Luxor, New York-New York, Aria, The Venetian, Wynn, or Encore.  The only people hanging around the place are staying there.  So there’s no riff-raff and it’s a lot quieter than the fancier hotels.  Quiet is good.  And I figured we’d need some sanctuary over the course of the next few days.

                We had reserved a room through Priceline – a king with a balcony overlooking the pool.  But by now, it was well after 11, and we were about to get a lesson in modern hotel management.  Check-in at most Vegas hotels is at 3, and they steady dole out the rooms with abandon – even those reserved by others.

“Want an upgrade?  Well, sure thing, we have a lovely king with a balcony overlooking the pool.”

This is standard operating procedure.  When you book a room, the small print says “Subject to Availability”.

We ended up in a very nice room on the fourteenth floor of the Club Tower with a king bed, overlooking McCarron Airport and a large parking lot.


We were way too tired to argue.  By now, it was about 3 o’clock east coast time and the bed looked quite inviting.

Tomorrow we’d work out the room situation and get settled in.  But for now, it was time to dream.