Welcome to Chucksville

Viva Las Vegas!
By Charles Reuben

Sunday, Bedtime: Summer 2006
       Carlos, the train attendant, said Amtrak coach cars are thoroughly cleaned and fumigated every 120 days. This, however, did not prevent a poisonous insect from stinging the lady seated behind me.
       The poor lady’s arm went from being itchy to very swollen and Carlos reassured her that a paramedic would check her out when we arrived in Gallup, New Mexico. We’re in Flagstaff, Arizona now and the paramedic never came, but at least the train’s moving.
       I boarded the Southwest Chief in downtown Albuquerque at 4:45 p.m. today and traveled only 200 feet before she came to an abrupt halt. A half hour later she crawled another 50 feet and then the lights and the air conditioning went out.
       The conductor said an electrical problem had been plaguing the train since it left Chicago. The crew seems to be able to get the train moving but all this stopping and starting and stopping is taking its toll on the passengers.
       An 85-year-old woman was removed from the train at Laguna Pueblo, New Mexico, for waving her cane in a threatening manner at fellow passengers. She had a card with emergency contact numbers on her person but nobody answered the phone on the other end. She was eventually deposited into the hands of the Laguna Pueblo police department, in the middle of nowhere.
       “It’s a shame the way some children treat their parents,” said the conductor. “They put them on the train without any money and expect them to arrive at their destination in one piece.”
       We encountered yet another delay in Flagstaff when a couple from Sweden had a problem with their passports. After a 45-minute delay the happy couple reboarded the train. In the meantime, the entire city of Flagstaff was cut in half by our half-mile long train.
       Now we are moving at a rapid clip. It appears that the engineer is working hard to recapture this time so that we can arrive in Los Angeles on schedule.
       The loss of power to the train has played havoc with the dining car and I’m so glad that I made the decision to bring my own food. I feasted on a large platter of Sushi California rolls that I bought this morning from Costco.
       I complemented this entree with two large rotisserie chicken sandwiches from Costco that were so big I couldn’t finish them. I washed it all down with four-miniature bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon: Bottled in 2001, they definitely took the edge off things.
       Nothing much appears to have changed on the Southwest Chief since I last rode on it. The dining car has gone to a simplified menu system and is serving food on disposable plates that are so pretty people in the handicapped compartment don’t want to throw them away: Instead, they sit on the edge of the garbage can like aluminum cans left for the homeless.
       The windows in my car are so dirty they are almost impossible to see out of, but at least I have a good seat and I’m pointed in the direction of travel.       

Monday morning
       Despite all the aforementioned electrical problems it appears that we will be arriving in Los Angeles only an hour late.
       My decision to go to Los Angeles by train and visit Mom was fairly spontaneous. Both my bosses are out of the country for a couple weeks and I was able to score a $68 roundtrip ticket to LA on the Amtrak website in its “hot deal” section.
       As is my custom, I enjoyed a generous breakfast of French toast in the dining car. I was seated with two friendly old ladies and one let me have her cranberry juice and treated me to a side order of turkey sausage. She paid for my meal, including the tip.
Tuesday, 2 p.m.
       Mom and I are cruising at 75 mph on 15 South on our way to Las Vegas, Nevada. We’ve got the air conditioner cranked on high, a full tank of gas and a squeaky clean windshield. The temperature outside our climate-controlled vehicle is 120 degrees.
       We ate lunch at Burger King in Barstow, California. Mom ordered a fish sandwich and I had an Angus burger.
       It’s been a long time since I’ve eaten at a fast food restaurant and I found the experience fascinating: I was amazed to discover that these places now accept credit cards and that ordering a meal is as simple as deciding what number “value meal” you want.
       There were 10 choices of valuable meals and it took me a while to sort it all out. I ordered the king-sized meal, believing that the entrée itself would be supersized. Actually the only items that are supersized are the fries and the drink, so I guess I feel I got ripped off: After all, we could have ordered a regular sized meal and just refilled our cups. And the fries were so plentiful that we ended up throwing half of them away.
       The sky is crystal clear with only a smattering of clouds in the distance. The highway is full of trucks and Mom doesn’t like to be stuck behind a truck so she is hogging the fast lane, which makes me more than a little nervous.
       But she’ll do fine. It’s a relief to not have to drive for a while. I was behind the wheel from Los Angeles to Barstow and I needed some rest.
       The Mojave desert is parched and looks like it could use a downpour. The roads are vastly improved since the last time I was in Vegas 10 years ago.
       We just passed a water park outside Newberry Springs that looks like it was abandoned. I can’t imagine where they can find water to sustain such folly so maybe they went out of business, like the old Beach Water Park in Albuquerque.
       Passing Zzyzx road (remember that for your next Scrabble game) and we’re 100 miles from Vegas.
       Mom is doing a superb job of driving. “I love to drive,” she says. “I’m really going to miss my car after I sell it. Driving helps me sort out all the things that I need to sort out.”
       Like myself, Mom doesn’t do a great job of parking or entering and exiting roads, but get her on a straightaway and she’ll do fine. Not bad for a 91 year old woman.
       Now we are climbing, climbing, climbing. Three lanes of traffic and a lane built just for truck traffic. Signs along the side of the road advise drivers to turn off their air conditioning for the next 10 miles but I don’t think that’s going to happen in this little ’97 Toyota Celica.
       The sky is filling up with islands of puffy clouds that might hold the promise of rain if only they decided to come together into one big mass, which I don’t suppose they will.
       Las Vegas is 81 miles away and I marvel at the sight of enormous power lines along the roadside. These lines and their mighty towers are probably from Hoover dam and their juice is destined for Southern California. If they filled this landscape with solar panels I bet they could make a big dent in the power grid but that probably won’t happen any time soon.
       And I can’t help but wonder why a high-speed railroad has not been built along this freeway. I know that environmentalists don’t want to disturb the desert tortoise but I’m sure that this highway must play havoc with their lifestyle, especially if they come into contact with the wheels of a truck.
       We are entering into an area populated with endless Joshua trees at an elevation of 4,000 feet. Some of the landscape is scorched from recent wildfires.
       The Joshua trees have now thinned out a little and we’re seeing a lot more yucca after summiting a mountain. We’re descending into a valley along a steep decline that has loose runaway gravel exits to help stop trucks whose brakes have failed. Fantastic volcanic geological formations border the roadside and at the bottom of this valley is a long stretch of sand that signals our approach to Mojave National Monument.
       In the distance I see the first sign that we are getting close to Vegas: Whiskey Pete’s! Mom never tires of telling me the story of how her friend Maxi won $700 on a $1 throw of a slot machine.
       We subsequently make a killing at Whiskey Pete’s. A $5 investment yielded $23 in winnings on the slot machines. That easily pays for our buffet breakfast and we walk out of the casino with smiles on our face.
11 p.m. The best thing about the Imperial Palace is its central location on the Las Vegas Strip. The price per night is not as good as it used to be but at $50, I suppose it is considered a bargain. The last time Mom and I stayed here we got a room for $29 and the second night was free but those days are long gone.
       This so-called palace is showing its age but the air conditioner is ice cold, there’s an ice machine down the hall and the service is OK. We’re staying on the ground floor of the east tower, which is conveniently located near the car, and the best part is that the place is quiet.
       We arrived at about 5 p.m. and after settling in our room, I plopped Mom into her brand new wheel chair. We took a walk down the Strip to the Bellagio Casino where we checked out its Conservancy as well as its majestic fountains of both water and chocolate! I was amazed by the sight of a curving escalator. The lights along the Strip were spectacular and the signage was much more high tech than I remember from my last visit.
       After we got home I walked around the Strip by myself for a while. I walked to the Venetian and marveled at the gondolas that were plying the crystal clear water and grew very suspicious about the way those boats were navigating the canals.
       Although the boatmen make a show of using their oars, the crafts must be radio controlled because they all follow very intricate and identical patterns. Also, the boatmen (and women) are concentrating more on their singing than on their driving and the things they do with their oars seem to have nothing to do with the way the direction their gondolas are moving.
       The gondolas look very much like the genuine article. Finely crafted, the only thing that seems to separate them from those in Venice are the seat belts and, I assume, whatever wizardry it takes to get them from crashing into the concrete banks of the canals.
       I searched high and low for buffets that we might frequent tomorrow and really didn’t have much success finding anything affordable. I used to think that Vegas was expensive 10 years ago but now it’s just really getting out of control. A single ticket to see the Blue Man Group costs $96 and that’s just for a cheap seat.
       Despite the outrageous cost of tickets, it seems that free entertainment is everywhere to be found. Between the volcano at the Mirage, the celebrity impersonators who pop up at the gaming tables and pretend to be Michael Jackson or one of the Supremes, it’s not hard to be amused.
       Throughout the evening I could not help wondering, what the hell am I doing here?
       I don’t like to gamble, I really don’t want to drink by myself and the most titillating thing about the women are their lurid, suggestive profiles in the baseball cards that are being flipped and handed out on street corners.
       So who are the girls on these cards anyway and what exactly does one get for the $35 Special? I can’t imagine that Gigi, Jess, Iris, Colleen, Deja, Mimi, Heidi or Britney would really sell their bodies for that price. My guess is that by calling the number displayed on the cover you would probably be visited by some goon squad that would beat the crap out of you.
       I look forward to buying an all day ticket to ride the monorail tomorrow so that we can continue our exploration of the Strip in comfort. As much as I enjoy having a wheelchair around, I must admit that after a while it gets to be a pain to push it around.
Wednesday, 3 p.m.
       Earlier this morning Mom and I took the monorail all the way to the Sahara Hotel and ate brunch at their $8 buffet.
       Unfortunately Mom ate a weird combination of food and as we headed out of the casino she told me she was going to throw up. I rushed her to the bathroom in just the nick of time and she emptied the contents of her sorry stomach into the toilet.
       After spending a good 15 minutes in the john, she emerged looking reasonably alive and I suggested that she spend a few minutes and a few dollars gambling. That turned out to be a good suggestion and after winning $3.75 and losing about $10, she was ready to return to the so-called Imperial Palace.
       We hopped on the Monorail and made it back “home” in 10 minutes. She was a bit upset about the fact that the room had not been cleaned and vented her frustration by filling out a comment card while I made a few phone calls to housekeeping.
       That’s when I decided to check out the spa, which turned out to be a rather modest affair. I eventually returned to my room where I saw the maid’s cart parked outside our room. I quickly made an about-face and headed out to the Strip.
       You can get a draft beer at O’Shea’s for a buck and I enjoyed a Michelob Ultra as I sat at the bar and watched the White Sox on TV. Suddenly, a dwarf popped out from behind the bar, climbed on the bar and began loudly blowing a whistle as he yelled, “Shots on the house! Shots on the house!”
       The dwarf was carrying around a bottle of green fluid that looked like antifreeze. Some brave souls cocked their heads back and the dwarf began pouring the liquid down their throats.
       Some buxom women particularly seemed to enjoy this little fellow and his antics and allowed him to fill their gullets while he simulated a bit of (how can I put this delicately) gyrating, humping action in the direct proximity of their ample cleavage.
       “Who will be next? Who’s next?” he cried. “How about you, sir?” he said as he approached me.
       “Sure, why not?” I thought to myself and he began pouring the stuff into my mouth.
       It was very smooth stuff and I found out later that it was called Irak. It filled me with a warm sensation and before long I was feeling pretty good. Much to my surprise I managed to consume several shots in one swell foop and received the applause and congratulations of my fellow bar mates.
Thursday, 1 p.m.
       “Those quarter slots will kill you,” said Mom. “They’ll clean you out in no time.”
       We certainly got our money’s worth with our one-day pass on the Las Vegas monorail. Aside from the lone elevator at the Imperial Plaza station, which smell of urine and look like they haven’t been cleaned in weeks, the monorail and its stations are squeaky clean and well-maintained.
       With the exception of the Imperial Palace station, the monorail elevators are air-conditioned. Security cameras and live security personnel are everywhere to be seen and buying a ticket, for either a single ride or a variety of passes, can be done on a machine or at a ticket booth (during business hours).
       The Monorail ride is bumpy at times but there is no faster way to get up and down the Strip. I was told that during conventions the vast expanse between the Sahara and the MGM Grand can have as many as seven trains running at the same time and reach speeds in excess of 50 mph.
       The monorail trains are remotely controlled and have no drivers but I was told that it was safe because, in the words of a security guard, “there are cameras everywhere.”
       The monorail stops and start with extraordinary precision. You cannot walk between the cars because there are no vestibules. Entrance into the turnstile is by inserting your prepaid ticket that opens a pair of bright red gates that allow access into the platform area.
       The monorail can transport 4,000 people per hour, and that’s just in one direction. The distance between the MGM station and Sahara can be traveled in 14 minutes. How vast this distance is in miles is anybody’s guess because the literature pertaining to the monorail speaks in terms of time and not space, which is par for the course in Southern California (and I assume Nevada) where the measure of all things is gauged by the clock and not the odometer.
       Our one-day pass cost us $15 each but generous discounts are given to Nevada residents, with proper documentation. The loudspeaker announces our stops with clarity but a commuter must also put up with endless commercial announcements.
       We are constantly reminded that the monorail was built using no taxpayer monies.
       With Mother safely deposited into her motel room I was free to spend the rest of the day exploring the Strip. I took the monorail to the MGM Grand Hotel and after walking through an ultra modern, black and gray themed casino I found myself at a booth where free tickets were being given away.
       I was invited to participate in the screening of a sitcom called “Aliens in America.” I received a ticket and was lead into a small grey walled room filled with 30 touch screen monitors and comfy ergonomic plastic seats. I filled out an on-line demographic survey and also a paper form that asked me if I had seen any contemporary TV shows and movies, all of which I had never heard of, with the exception of Michael Crichton’s “ER.”
       Thanks to my partner Jennifer, I barely watch much TV, with the exception of the evening news, Jeopardy, Boston Legal, ER, Grey’s Anatomy, Medium, and my favorite, Malcolm in the Middle. That’s enough TV for any mortal and I do thoroughly enjoy them. That comes to no more than a couple hours of TV watching a day which, I understand, is a rather conservative amount.
       With the addition of a pencil and a pad of paper, which I found useful for taking notes (I was the only one taking notes) I was given a small box called a “Perception Analyzer” which had a little dial on it. On one side of the dial was a happy face and on the other side was a sad face.
       One of my responsibilities (which I took very seriously) was to move the dial from happy to sad depending upon how I reacted to what was being played on the big screen in front of the room. A very touchy digital display on the Perception Analyzer translated my reactions into numbers between 1 and 100 and supposedly sent them to a computer.
       The Perception Analyzer didn’t seem to work very well, however. Despite my best efforts, I sincerely doubt that my calculated perceptions were duly recorded. Fortunately that glitch was remedied after the showing by a touch screen and keyboarded survey that did a pretty good job of recording what I really thought about the show, in both an essay and multiple-choice format.
       The audience consisted of about 15 people and most of them were black. The people who were pretty wishy-washy about the whole affair begged off before the show began, probably thinking (like I did) that we were about to witness a live filming of a TV show. We were told that the show was in a fairly rough state and to gauge our responses based on the story and not the editing. As it turned out the show was a fairly polished production.
       “Aliens in America” is a coming of life comedy that is similar, in many ways, to Malcolm in the Middle. It is the story of a Pakistani exchange high school student who comes to live with an upper middle class family in a typical white suburb. The family consists of the parents, Fran and her husband, and the teenagers Justin and his sister.
       The Pakistani boy is named Raja who is Moslem and proudly wears Middle Eastern garb. He defies an attempt by Justin to don “normal clothes” and does his five prayers on a daily basis. After an initial period of uncertainty, the family learns to adapt to Raja’s ways.
       The father learns to like him because he does housework and Justin learns to like him because Justin regards himself as an alien, in a Site 51/Roswell kind of way. And so Raja learns to rock and roll and Justin, in a memorable scene, is found praying to Allah, much to the shock of Fran, the mother.
       When Fran sees Justin on his hands and knees praying to Allah, she freaks out and wants to send Raja back to his parents in Pakistan. But when she finds out that Raja’s parents had died, her maternal instincts rise to the surface and all is well.
       The exchange student deal is sealed when the father discovers that he will get a paycheck for accommodating the boy. The father’s character definitely needs some polishing. About the only memorable thing about him is apparent greed and the fact that he raises llamas in the backyard.
       The title “Aliens in America” is, of course, a double entendre that totally escaped me until hours after the showing. It may need to be changed because I just don’t think it works very well. Maybe “Raja in the Middle” would be much more to the point, but when you get right down to it, aside from the fact that the main characters are adolescent, there aren’t many more similarities. The show tastefully explores the subjects of prejudice and friendship and I liked it very much.
       I enjoyed “Aliens in America” so much that I spent an exorbitant amount of time writing about it in the essay section and carefully considering my responses to the multiple choice questions. In return for all this work I received a crapload of MGM discount coupons that I will never use and the chance to win a home entertainment system, which I’m sure is not going to happen. I hope they take my feedback seriously, however, because this is one show that, after some tweaking, would really make the world a much better place to live in.
       After registering my reactions to this potentially marvelous sitcom I headed out of the screening room, long after everybody else had left. I asked the person who was monitoring our screening if I could keep the pencil and paper that we were given. After a moment’s hesitation he said I could keep them and that has definitely helped me keep track of the evening’s activities.
       This free pad and paper, incidentally, were probably one of the few things I was given for free in a town where everything, and I mean everything, has a fairly substantial price. (Well maybe not everything: An hour of my time evaluating the merits of “Aliens In America” seems to be worth only a “free” Nathan’s Hotdog at the MGM Grand… and that’s only if I buy another one at the regular price.)
       Having done my thing for Hollywood, I poked around the MGM Grand for a few more minutes and then headed back to the Monorail. I rode it to the Bellagio Casino and took pictures of the fountains, both water and chocolate, that Mother and I had visited the night before. I was pleased to hear that they were playing “Luck Be A Lady Tonight,” sung by Frank Sinatra, instead of the crappy pop music we suffered through the night before.
       After that I poked my head into the Venetian and Caesar’s Palace and then it was back to the Imperial Palace to check on Mom, replace the batteries in my digital camera and head out to the Strip one more time.
       I don’t think there is any place on earth like Las Vegas. People drink alcohol openly in public and smoke tobacco in every conceivable place. (So what is it about tobacco and casinos that is so inextricably connected?) Hawkers openly promote hookers on street corners and every possible form of gambling, from the roulette wheel to betting on ponies via satellite hookup, can be found wherever you look.
       The Freemont Street experience can be accessed by taking the Monorail North to the end of the line (Sahara Street Station) and connecting with the 108 bus. This sounds easy but the reality is that the 108 bus did not appear to be running with any sort of regularity and I found myself, in the company of others, waiting outside in the sweltering heat for a good half hour.
       A bus finally arrived and its meter was broken so we got a free ride. Had I known the wait would be so excruciatingly long, I would have brought along some reading material. I don’t mind waiting for buses (I’m used to that because I’m a commuter in Albuquerque), but I really don’t like it when something that is portrayed as being a simple connection is actually a test of my patience. Fortunately the AC was working well so I quickly got over my frustration. Hopefully the Monorail will be extended to Freemont in the future, but judging by the extensive distance we covered, I wouldn’t hold my breath.
       Once on the bus, we drove past a few more glittering casinos and then entered into an urban area full of 70% off furniture stores and other charming industrial complexes that were hard to distinguish because the sun was beginning to set.
       Who would have thought that Las Vegas would be lacking in glitter and dazzle? The streets we passed could easily have been mistaken for the South Side of Chicago.
       Suddenly we entered another side of Vegas that seemed to have its own unique charm: North Las Vegas, the place that started it all. Here you can actually get a room for $29.95 and food for next to nothing. I was dazzled by neon lights that broadcast names like “The Plaza,” “The Golden Nugget” and “Four Queens.”
       This was totally foreign territory to me: Raw, urban, with a certain sweet desolation about it.
       “Next stop Fremont,” said the driver and this is what most of us riders were waiting to hear. A very friendly black policewoman on a bike stopped and talked to me after I got off the bus, seeing my confusion and lack of direction. She told me exactly where to go and how to find a bus back to my motel. She also advised me to not wander off too far from the beaten path because it was not safe.
       Freemont Street has been covered with a vast canopy of LED lights and the entire thoroughfare is closed off to vehicular traffic. Bands seem to be playing wherever you look and they play what is popularly known as “classic rock and roll,” which is just the way I like it. This is a place where the slot machines take coins, unlike the Strip where the machines only take bills and bar-coded pieces of paper.
       The lingering aroma of tobacco is everywhere, even in this relatively open-air venue, and there is nowhere to sit. I began to see a pattern: The powers that be don’t want you to linger, they want to you take it all in and move on.
Loitering is simply not something that is encouraged in Las Vegas, unless of course you are in some sort of venue that is filling your stomach or your lungs (think oxygen bars). And even then they only want you to stay as long as it takes to get whatever money you are willing to give them, at which point you are subtly, or not so subtly, encouraged to move on.
       The Fremont Street experience takes place every hour on the hour and in this case the hour was 10 p.m. when I entered beneath the towering white canopy. At that precise moment all the glittering neon lights of the casino were shut off and the giant canopy that engulfed our crowd of at least 10,000 people were dazzled with a free light and sound show that penetrated every molecule of my being.
       Every seat (or should I say “every perspective”) is a good one on Freemont Street. On this particular evening half the street had been rented to Southwest Airlines for a private party, so much of the show was dedicated to them. It was enthralling to see a Southwest Airlines airplane zoom directly above our heads, and the tribute that was paid to their employees must have filled them with awe.
       This unique celebration of aviation was followed by a noisy tribute to Nascar, a high-speed automotive sensation that seems to be enthralling the American public at this time in our history. Celebrities like Richard Petty drive automobiles that look like the muscle cars of the 60’s but are, in reality, high performance machines. They make lots of noise, reach incredible speeds and make spectacular and sometimes tragic crashes when they hit the wall or lose control. The public loves them and you can find people glued to TV sets all over America watching them drive around in circles.
       Mom and I actually saw a few of these cars at the Sahara Casino that morning and her reaction upon seeing them was to run into the bathroom and throw up. Of course that reaction could have been caused by the huge buffet that we had just feasted on, but then again, maybe not.
       After experiencing Freemont Street I realized that I had reached the limits of my physical endurance and, following the advice of the nice black policewoman, I walked to Las Vegas Blvd and boarded a very uncomfortable and crowded DART bus that, for $2, took me back to the Sahara. The trip was slow and now that I had been thoroughly spoiled by the Monorail, I was more than happy to get off the bus, even though it would have taken me back to the Imperial Palace, if I so desired.
       As I watched the bus depart I noticed that it was actually a double decker bus and at that moment I regretted not having gotten on its second level, which might have been more enjoyable.
       So there I was, outside the Sahara on the street and it was very desolate indeed. Across from me was the world’s largest souvenir shop and I could not resist checking it out. This is the place you can get fuzzy dice, mood rings, refrigerator magnets and all manner of katchkies for only a couple bucks.
       This is also the place where you can see a severed hand floating in formaldehyde with a sign that says this is what happens to people who shoplift in the store. Not exactly the kind of thing that I want imprinted on my brain cells for all eternity, but I suppose that was the intention of the management. After checking out the place for a few minutes, I moved out without buying a thing, crossed the street to the Sahara, walked through the casino and boarded the Monorail for a swift ride to the Imperial Palace, all the time haunted by the vision of that severed hand.
       Friday, 8 a.m.
       We woke up at about 7 a.m. and after showering, we headed back to the Monorail to make one more trip of the entire Strip, from the Imperial Palace to the MGM and then from the MGM all the way to the Sahara and back again to the Imperial Palace.
       Since Mom was in her wheelchair we took the Imperial Palace elevator and I noticed that it still had not been cleaned. There was a nasty stain on the floor, the air conditioner was inoperative and a crushed Budlight can sitting in the corner, exactly as it had been the day before. Fortunately the elevator worked and we had a pleasant ride, sightseeing Vegas from as high as 70 feet in the air, getting a bird’s eye view of the new Wynne resort and the lush waste-of-water, I mean golf course that dominates its property.
       There seems to be no lack of electricity or water in this town, although it is sitting smack in the middle of the desert, with temperatures soaring as high as 120 degrees.
       The Strip can be a great place for handicapped people. There are lots of curb cuts, elevators and bridges all over the place. In terms of accessibility the Imperial Palace must rank as one of the worst and most confusing places of all. The hotel is a maze of corridors and heavy glass doors that open with difficulty and seem to be located at the worst possible places. Ramps are difficult to negotiate and even the employees don’t seem to have a clue where anything is.
       “Do you think this place will be here in 10 years?” I asked a security guard.
       “Hell, we’ll be lucky if it’s here in two years,” he said. “This place was just bought up by Harrahs. Seems like they own everything in Vegas.”
       And so it goes. Casinos on the Strip are being demolished at an astonishing rate and cranes dominate the skyline. Hopefully affordable places like the Imperial Palace will continue to exist but there may come a day when the Strip will become the domicile of only the rich.
       Our drive back to Los Angeles was pleasant, although the winds outside our car were fierce. Mom said that she knew somebody whose car was entirely stripped of its paint by a dust storm.
       We rested and relieved ourselves at a very pleasant rest stop with a beautiful tree that somehow managed to survive and flourish in this hostile environment. Giant black crows battled the strong winds and had a hard time just staying in one place, hovering like helicopters in the air.
       Clouds in the sky made AM reception quite good and we listened to the Randy Rhodes show on Air America, a new syndicated liberal radio station that seems to be doing well.
       Randy was in good form yesterday, chattering on about how Rumsfeld, Bush and Cheney were homophobic, afraid of the vagina and totally obsessed with the anus, as reflected by their current Middle East policies regarding torture.
        Mom, who usually listens to Rush Limbaught and Dr. Laura must have turned red as a beet, but I didn’t notice because my attention was focused on the road. She listened intently, however and really got a kick out of the people who called into the show to chat.
       And so we covered the requisite 250 miles back home and made it back to the apartment by 5:30, which was great time, considering all the side trips that we made. Mom is always getting on my case about how slow I am. And it’s true: I am slow as molasses and certainly in no hurry to get anywhere. But I am, afterall, on vacation and I really don’t see what the rush is.
Saturday, 10 p.m.
        I’m sitting in the lower level reserved compartment of the Amtrak writing these words after an extraordinarily successful vacation with my Mom. This trip is about as jet setting as I will ever get, since I have resolved never to fly again.
       Talk about a “feel good movie”: Akilla and the Bee, definitely makes the top of the list! I just watched that outstanding movie in the observation car of Amtrak train #4 heading back to Albuquerque, New Mexico.
       I am literally grinning from ear to ear and I could not drag myself away from it for a second, even though my bladder was ready to burst! Oh my God: Run, don’t walk to your local theatre or video store and rent that movie. It is perfection in every sense of the world.
       It is the story of an 11 year old girl who grew up in east LA and overcame every imaginable obstacle to become a finalist in the National Spelling Bee. Did she win? I won’t spoil it for you…. Check out this movie and find out for yourself!
       9:30 a.m. The train is running a couple hours early for a change and it looks like we will make it into Albuquerque in record time.
       I had a nice breakfast in the dining car with a well-to-do man whose avocation is buying and racing horses. I learned quite a lot about the business from him but the most important lesson was that it was no way to make money. It seems that he got involved with racing at a young age when a streak of good luck sucked him into that particular world. That luck tapered somewhat with time and now he buys and races horses for fun. He told me that he doesn’t get emotionally involved with the horses themselves and that the price that a person pays for a horse does not necessarily equate to its speed. He told me all about the breeding game and I was fascinated to learn that there is no guarantee that a horse will conceive an offspring after it has gone to stud.
       A student of history, this gentlemen told me he watches very little television and had just finished reading The Peloponnesian Wars. We talked about contemporary history and he said that he didn’t think Bush was very intelligent.
       I had a brief night of sleep even though I downed an Ambien CR. After realizing that it was impossible for me to fall asleep on the seats, I curled up on the floor and managed to get some rest, although it was a somewhat fitful sleep. Now I’m exhausted and somewhat sleepy and looking forward to a hot bath and a good night’s sleep on my own bed.
       And I bet the gentle reader is exhausted as well, after reading so many words so I think it’s time to call it a day.

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