Spending Christmas in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania was a fool’s errand and I was a fool for trying. The actual Christmas part was fabulous. I got to spend it with my family, which hasn’t happened since I moved to California, and I got to meet my sister’s two cats whose names are Carbon and Aries. Aries is a lovable chubblywubbly who could NOT wait until I left. He would stare at me and the half of the bed I was taking up, tutting in cat language. Then sighing in cat language and flopping down on the weakest part of my ankles, thinking heavy thoughts so to better impress upon me that I was in His Spot. Carbon is an all black kitty with long legs. Petting her is like befriending an adorable, gangly spider that purrs. They are both excellent at hunting laser pointer lights and emery boards.
However, the thing I’d forgotten in the years since I’d abandoned my roots, moved to a temperate climate, and promptly joined the Socialist Party, is that winter in Midwestern states, lined with large (some might even say “great”) lakes, commonly volleys between 55 and negative 12 degrees. I chose to go to Pittsburgh so that my sister would have someone to go do cool Pittsburgh things with that she hadn’t been doing because she was busy being an adult. Lord knows, San Francisco is notoriously full of art I have not got around to seeing, nor really ever planned on seeing. Welcome to living somewhere with stuff in it, I suppose. You work your way through the necessities and figure you’ll have all the time in the world to steal a peddle taxi from someone with a man-bun and race it down the Embarcadero. My plan was to head to Pitt so that my sister and I could run around and have an awesome time finding her interests in her new home. I was even going to hold her purse while she rode horses/line danced. I had packed my comfy leggings with extra butt padding for the very occasion. It would be glorious.
Pittsburgh was 6 degrees. Needless to say, the only things I wound up holding were my cheeks as they were stripped raw by the wind. I saw my first snowfall in years, (and only cried when the wind blew into my face so hard that crying was the only way to keep my tear ducts from freezing), and then went back to trying to encourage the cats to pile on top of me so that my extremities might thaw. My sister also has one of those important all-the-time jobs and one of those unlimited data plans so that she doesn’t have internet in her apartment. I burned the midnight data, refreshing twitter to stay up to date on the Milo case. Such expensive chuckles, but so necessary.
It was a great time, but terrible timing. But my sister and I got to see Girls Trip, which is excellent. So, we’ll always have a movie about hot mid-thirties women enjoying nice weather and outdoor hijinks and dumping men who aren’t shit.
This was the first time I’d been the traveler in recent years. When you live in one of the more populated Cali places, it’s a safe bet people will come to you. So going through TSA with snowpants and a winter coat had gotten buried in the back of the memory hole. Worrying Spirit Airlines will try to charge you extra for your “personal bag” and wondering if carrying boots in your hand counts as “extra items” were woes that came flooding back like vocabulary from a forgotten language. It’s a miracle every novel in the midwest isn’t just a manual for how to put on snow tires.
By virtue of holiday travel, I got a 24 hour layover in Las Vegas. I had never been to Vegas, but I had one Vegas joke that every single one of my friends smiles weakly at whenever I say it, and for that I thank them.
“Las Vegas looks like what I imagine the inside of Guy Fieri’s head looks like.”
Go on. Smile weakly.
You’re a good friend.
I landed late at night, spilling out of the plane like biscuit dough from a can, into the weirdest airport I’ve ever been to and I’ve been to fucking Dallas okay? And everything in Dallas was Chik-Fil-A but they were all closed and it was a weird chicken ghost town. But Las Vegas airport is weirder even than that. For one thing, there are functional slot machines everywhere. But they all make a ton of noise, so how are you supposed to know if you win? Shouldn’t those things have a sad trombone noise feature for when you get three 7’s but they aren’t the right shade of filigree? (I may not understand gambling).
I had planned on walking the strip, I had planned on roaming around and getting into trouble, and I had planned on getting laid. What actually happened was far more sinister. I was in bed by 10:30pm, stone sober, and didn’t even take my makeup off.
I think one of my shoes might have been on. And I asked for a late check out so I could stay in this room with free Wifi, cable, and the heat cranked up to 11 until 3pm. I’m pretty sure this is exactly what Lindsay Lohan would do.
The complimentary breakfast has vegan food, technically. This is a common issue when you’re a vegan that leaves whatever culinary cloister you live in. You can always eat technically. You hope the bread doesn’t have milk or eggs (or lard) in it, but you don’t ask because if you find out then you’re on the hook to DO something about it. You ask if the complimentary breakfast oatmeal is made with water or milk, but either answer will render it unflavored glue. You hoard the peanut butter packets, slipping them in your pocket for later. You eat all the pineapple you can stand. It’s like a religious fast, you try to set whatever bargain you can to get yourself to eat sliced almonds and raisins. “The airport might not have anything and you’ll need to eat, so don’t compromise now because you might need to scarf down whatever veggie option that’s available.” In Dallas the veggie option was “ribs without sauce,” I mostly drank in Dallas.
I settled for not eating the egg and cheese omelette that makes my stomach growl and use my coffee cup to mix gin, Squirt, and seltzer into the sort of makeshift cocktail I would never have in Oakland. It feels important to not do the things I would do in Oakland here. I feel this need to not taint the experience, but I don’t know if I’m worried this will taint Vegas or if it will taint home. I never drink Tanqueray, but I do in my steamy, cozy hotel room, and now I decide that’s a thing I do in Vegas. I order it at the cocktail lounge down the street, and buy a bottle from the liquor store on the corner. How quickly necessity turns to ritual, makeshift turns to curated experience. I make my partner promise to take me to Vegas someday and “do it right” and before I hang up I make him promise that if anyone asks, I’m doing cocaine and pimping out Jonah Hill. Then I tuck into my gin and HGTV. My shoes are off now.
Las Vegas does look like the inside of Guy Fieri’s head, by the way. But like everything related to Guy Fieri, I expect to dislike it more than I do. Las Vegas is what I expected and I find it perfectly palatable. I’ll admit, I don’t know if these billboards with people on them are for bands or magicians, but at least there is something to look at. Las Vegas has done what Los Angeles has not, realized that most of the buildings are fucking ugly and supplied you with brightly colored other things to take in and view. It’s like an accent wall, but with advertisements for Blue Man Group.
I’m staying off the Strip, which is a bit like getting tacos outside of the Home Depot. It’s not the best, but fuck it, it’s tacos. How are you going to ruin a taco? I wander the blocks beyond the Marriot, taking in odd sites, and noticing the layers and layers of marketing that have accumulated during ages of boom and gentrification. Brightly lit kitsch from generations long passe speckle the horizon. I’m down the street from someplace called FUNHOG RANCH whose sign has a Yosemite Sam type figure, but the peeling lettering on the sign says “WELCOME LGBT” and my heart melts a little. It’s in the rumor mill that I’m a sentimentalist and I’ll have you know that when I find the person spreading that around I will kill them.
There’s a saying about New York City, “if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere” and there’s a saying about Vegas, “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” I look at the comedy lineup of shows and see Carrot Top, Eddy Griffin, and the music selections are Brittney and Donnie and Marie and “The Original Misfits.” I used to think that saying meant that bad things that you got up to in Vegas wouldn’t haunt you. But judging by the lineup, it appears that any career moves you make in Vegas only matter on the Strip.
In Pitt I went to the Phipps Conservatory and got to look at the carefully arranged succulents, birds of paradise, and “exotic” flora that are lying around my neighborhood at home. This is the price of California, or when you live anywhere “exotic.” You become impossible to thrill, jaded isn’t the right word, but I’m sure there is something in German that means something to the effect of my meaning. Las Vegas is lovely, but it can’t thrill me. I have palm trees where I live, and lights, and expensive cocktails, and terrible signs for shut down restaurants. But there is an affection beyond thrill. Beyond lust. Beyond the fear and excitement of new affairs. I live in an exotic place, and am not easily impressed, so when I am impressed, it lasts.
The only gambling I’ve done on this trip was in the form of raffle tickets purchased in a bar in Canfield, Ohio, where I was meeting my sister’s new boyfriend. I suppose the gamble was less in the tickets and more in the meeting of said boyfriend. Or maybe the gamble was heading into Ohio at all, or heading to a local watering hole. I gamble in the less obvious ways. The beer in this place is perfectly fine, the menu has too many items. The sort of long list that sparks the realization that it has so many options because all of them are terrible. The song He Stopped Loving Her Today by George Jones plays before I’m in the joint 20 minutes and I think of high school and my father and of burning this bar to the ground, and I remember why I don’t gamble. When asked for a number for the raffle tickets, I write down the number 24, the worst year of my life. Why not hunker down into misery? It’ll give my something to write about. My sister’s new boyfriend is lovely, my sandwich is lack luster, and I try to hold my breath until we’ve passed all six churches in the tiny hamlet of Canfield and cross onto the PA version of the turnpike. Sometimes you know something better than you know yourself, and you penalize it for anticipating its flaws. Ohio is the ex-lover I still can’t make peace with. That isn’t its fault, of course, as it rarely is. Resentment is always the responsibility of the person who holds it and feeds it after midnight. But I’m a nurturer, and I nurturer that bitterness.
The sun shines down on the parking lot of the furnished, off-brand hotel next door. It’s painted a 70’s brown and orange combination that I suppose is to fit into the glamour of desert sunsets. My heater hums as if to ask, “are you sure you want to room this warm?” But I do. I have to thaw out the aches in my heart, and the burn in my cheeks, and the numbness of my joints, and the soreness of not being able to hold my sister’s purse as she laughs and sways on the dance floor. I’m a prickly judge of character, as sharp and exotic as succulents, flowering rarely because I don’t want anyone to expect it of me, but I am impressed with Vegas, and for my reputation, I’m a great judge of character.