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Leaving Boonville (April 1, 1998)

For Las Vegas, last Thursday, on United out of San Francisco International. I’ve never been there, but a good friend’s wedding gave me and the missus the pretext, you might say, because it wouldn’t have occurred to either of us to go to Las Vegas otherwise.

The flights to and from were uneventful, though each time I go somewhere out of SFO there seems to be new wrinkles in dehumanization. 

Boarding the shuttle bus from the long-term parking lot for the main terminal, a disembodied voice says, “Welcome to San Francisco International Airport. We are approaching section 3.” When we get to section 2 the message repeats itself. Ditto for our arrival at section 1. The possibility of a human exchange with the driver, who has to listen to the recording all day long, is greatly reduced, but this driver goes way out of her way to give careful instructions to a guy who has to climb through a hole in the fence to get to the other side of the vast lot so he can apply for a job. People find ways. 

Signs on the shuttle urge travellers to report drivers who somehow offend them. Snitch-off instructions are all over the place these days. One more insult to working people.

At the main terminal, the men’s room is filthy and graffiti-ridden. SFO is a big patronage palace for Frisco politicians. Lots of people make lots of money working the higher echelons there but the endless new construction can’t keep up with the deteriorating old.

Every fifteen minutes or so, adding to the atmosphere of mild panic characteristic of airports, a school marmish voice warns, “This is a security advisory. All vehicles parked at departures will be towed immediately.” As if a car bomb is about to be ignited. No vehicles are towed, of course. No vehicles can be towed because the traffic is jammed tight. It would take a flight of mega-magnetized choppers to remove all the illegally-parked vehicles, but it seems to get people dashing in and out of the terminal with that stampeded look in their widened eyes.

Seated in the boarding area scanning my fellow departees for the danger signs, an old guy totters up to me and says, pointing at his shoes, “Rockports.”

“New Balance,” I reply, pointing at mine.

“My doctor told me to wear ‘em,” my new friend says.

“My wife bought mine,” I inform him.

Rockport returns to his seat where he sits smiling at me. I smile back. We’re footwear comrades.

He’s with an older woman who’s obviously his wife and a younger woman who seems to be his daughter. The daughter is reading a biography of Mallarme.

“Ah,” I say to myself, “an intellectual,” and wait for something crazy or incompetent to happen.

Sure enough, Ms. Mallarme somehow manages to jam her travel bag into the open base of a sign that says something like, “Passengers Only.” Mr. Rockport and I tug at it until it’s free, and just as a passing stewardess, noting both the absurdity and the absurd trio attempting to remedy it, offers to “call a maintenance person.”

Mr. Rockport says, “Thank you, Mr. Beard.”

As we all board the plane, Mr. and Mrs. Rockport and their daughter, Mallarme, are eating box lunches. They never do get on the plane. I guess they just like to talk shoes and eat lunch at SFO.

I know this is going to sound unkind, but two fat people are wheeled onto the plane in wheelchairs by petite, straining Filipino women. In Vegas, both of the allegedly immobilized passengers fairly leap from their wheelchairs and walk briskly to the terminal’s Burger King. I make a note to inform the National Transportation Board that perfectly ambulatory fat people are scamming their way into first class.

There’s a lot more Las Vegas than I’d expected. I thought it was an expanded Reno. I had no idea it’s sucking the Colorado dry to spread out for miles like a desert replay of LA, which also is built on a bed of cactuses now that I remember my geography. Bear with me. I seldom leave Boonville for any place other than San Fran.

A cranker whisks us to our Motel 6 only three bucks from McCarran which is named after one of the lead McCarthyites of the 1950s. There’s a regular shrine to this character in the airport. Howard Hughes, another world class dingbat, also gets a big play in the airport’s history display cases. 

The door to our Motel 6 room has been kicked in and clumsily refitted. It’s cold and rainy, and the wind whistles through the cracks and right on up into some of my cracks.

The main drag of the playground is only a couple of blocks away. I head off to see what I can see in the two days I’ll be there.

It’s big, tacky, and endless. But very interesting. I foot it all the way down the strip to what they call “Old Town,” but I don’t see anything older than me. I’m panhandled on an average of once per block. It costs me about $25 to walk from that huge, black, pseudo-Egyptian sarcophagus-like casino to “Old Town” on the other side of the Stratosphere, a thousand and something-foot tower from which you can see the end of the world as it spreads over miles and miles of sand where nobody should live. 

Although Vegas is famous as a geriatric playground, I pass through shoals of young people with voracious eyes and unhealthy, insatiable appetites. There’s more of them than old people. 

Inside the casinos mechanical apes jump up and down in the restaurant. I drop ten bucks in two hours playing the nickel slots, marvelling at the math genius who has programmed the machines to keep you playing, allowing you to hit six or seven buck “jackpots” as you approach your last two or three dollars.

The purpose of the visit is a wedding which takes place in a seedy chapel in the parking lot of an even seedier three-story motel. It looks like a monkey island for dopers who hang out the windows hooting and bellowing at passersby, especially women. 

The days when impertinence and insult could be rewarded with gunfire are back. I understand and approve.

The wedding is conducted by a Mexican who, a sign says, will perform Elvis weddings, intergalactic weddings, Camelot weddings, and Beach Party weddings. Fortunately, my friends settle for a wedding-wedding.

The Mexican launches into a “We-ness, You-ness, Us-ness, Thus-ness” blessing during which he pauses to light a three-pronged candelabra, fumbling with his matchbook and throwing off the rhythms of his riveting but quite bizarre performance. He finally gets all three candles going. “This one is you,” he says to the bride, “and this one is for you,” he says to the groom, “and now,” he says with a flourish as he points at the flaming middle candle, “you both are one.”

Father Thus-nesses’ assistant is a snarling woman who snaps at him and at us more often than she manages to snap several pictures of the matrimonial tableau with her instamatic. “I heard you!” she barks at the padre when he gently asks her to position herself behind the candelabra. “Ya don’t got any rice ya plan to throw afterwards, do ya?” she challenges us. “We don’t allow it here.” 

Later the new couple pays six bucks each for ten photos. The photographer won’t turn over the negatives. That takes thirty more bucks.

On the way to a relative’s house for a modest reception, the groom asks me if I want to see Arnold Schwarzenegger’s new house. I restrain an impulse to leap from the car.

At the reception someone says he wishes he had tickets for a forthcoming Yanni show whose idiot face is a hundred feet high all over town. The missus suddenly laughs: I’m terrified she’ll tell the whole party about how I was drunk one night when Yanni appeared on Channel 9 and I called the station to ask what the hell had happened to public television. Fortunately, she doesn’t let the cat out of the bag, but does tell the party that I wish I could stay another night to see the boxing at one of the casinos. They all give me the “this is one weird beatnik” look.

I’d like to spend some quality time in Vegas but I think I’ve already got the drift of the place. It’s always good to get back to Boonville.

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