Take a look at this photo (above). Tell me where you think it’s from. No cheating. I’ll provide the answer at the conclusion of the column.
Earlier tonight, Marieta and I had the great pleasure of attending a special four-course wine dinner at a local restaurant here in Las Vegas. But this wasn’t a wine dinner like all the rest. We were seated with a couple, aged in their late 60s.
The gentleman and I got to chatting. Somehow, the topic of the Vietnam War came up. We engaged in a spirited conversation about the masterful Vietnam War television series, produced by Ken Burns, on PBS. By the way, this is must-see television for anyone who has not seen it yet.
During the course of our friendly conversation, the man revealed that he served two tours of duty in Vietnam. He was stationed at Da Nang in 1968 and returned again in 1971. He was assigned to a U.S. Air Force unit that provided routine maintenance on fighter jets.
Initially, the man was somewhat reluctant to talk about his memories of the war. But inquisitive (nosy) as I am, I was riveted by this moment — what amounted to a front-row, first-person account of one of the most transformative events in all of American history. How fortunate I was to have this rare opportunity. I wasn’t about to let this chance to learn more pass me by. And so, I pressed on.
The man stated that he arrived in Da Nang in early 1968 at the tender age of 18. He had lied about his age and joined the Air Force at age 17. His very first night in Vietnam was the Tet Offensive. For those unfamiliar with Vietnam War history, the Tet Offensive was a surprise attack that caught the American military totally off-guard and was arguably the shocking turning point of the war.
I listened intently over the next two hours, privileged to be given this, such a rare gift. As we talked, or I should say — as he talked and I listened — the man became increasingly more open and willing to talk about the many experiences that had haunted him for nearly half a century. It will take me some time to digest all the perspectives he shared with me, some of which were very troubling to hear. Perhaps I shall write about them later, if appropriate. I don’t know. Perhaps some things are best left unsaid.
But what really struck me at one point during our conversation was when I sought to give the man an “out,” allowing him to escape my inquisitive and perhaps annoying curiosity and enjoy the evening with the rest of the 30 or people assembled in the room sipping on Pinot, Zinfandel, Cabernet, and Sangiovese. Indeed, I casually tried to change the subject at this point, thinking my captive might leap at the chance to leave those painful memories of Vietnam behind. But instead of taking the easy bait, the man wanted to talk — more.
I have a tear in my eye and a tremble in my wrists as I write this now, a few hours later thinking about the next thing the man revealed to me.
“No one ever asks me about my time over there. It feels good to talk about it.”
Wow. Just, fucking wow.
Here I was, thinking I was blessed to be able to gain a new perspective from his insight, and yet he was on the opposite side of the table, convinced that my empathy was in some small manner — therapeutic. He thought I was doing him the favor. I’m having trouble writing now.
For another 90 minutes or so, I heard stories and memories and events and perspectives that opened my eyes and broadened my knowledge about what thousands of good men (and women) went through — both over there then and back here later.
I won’t give the man’s name because he insists he’s a private person. But I suspect there are many, many more veterans like him harboring memories that deserve and must and demand to be shared, real pain and emotional conflict that merits the soothing salve of a kindly ear, a gentle nod at the right instant, and a genuine but simple expression of gratitude.
I wonder how many others are out there now, tight-lipped, sitting in silence. How many others of this war and that war and all the wars we’ve fought and continue to fight didn’t get the chance to sit down at a wine dinner and speak about what they saw and what they endured and how they survived the madness. Hundreds? Thousands? Tens of thousands? Why don’t we ask questions and why aren’t we listening?
Yes, the wine dinner was exceptional, but then most of my wine dinners are great. But this one was of Grand Cru of an exceptional vintage, two souls de-cantered into one.
How blessed I was to have the opportunity to share a dinner with a Vietnam vet, and listen and learn.
Finally, the answer to the question posed in the opening paragraph is — the photograph shows Da Nang, Vietnam. This is a photograph of Da Nang, formally one of the largest American military installations in South Vietnam, as it looks today.
Times do change. Places change also. What should not and must not ever change is our curiosity for history and insatiable compassion for others, even strangers.
That’s the first thing I remember from the haze of my mental fog after crashing at 4 am last night and slumbering for five unsatisfying crusty-eyed hours.
Startled by her scream (or screams — perhaps I slept through the first few), I did seriously contemplate rolling over and going back into my slumber because — truth be told — we aren’t nice human beings when wmindlessly wrapped in a blanket tucked into the fetal position. Somehow selfless humanity prevailed over selfish instinct, and I mustered up enough manhood to slink out of a cozy bed and wobble downstairs in response to the echo of alarm.
Huh? What was that? Where was she? What happened? Did the dumb cat finally get run over? Who am I? Why am I here?
There before me was the sight of ecstasy. Marieta was standing out in the backyard on a perfectly glorious 78-degree blue skied Saturday morning gazing at our tiny lemon tree like Johnny Pitt and Brad Depp had morphed into a single love lust and had entered our home confessing some deep seeded passion; only the subject that leering wasn’t a person but rather a plant, or make that — a tree. Our tiny adorable worthless fucking lemon tree, that scattercluck of a useless vine that had cost me $17.95 at the plant nursery a distant 13 years ago, that I non-producing fake-ass fruit tree I wanted to chop down with a sledgehammer 900 times since then, had finally….GIVEN BIRTH.
Look! A lemon!
Well, screw me silly. It was a lemon! Or so it seemed. I wasn’t so sure.
This stupid stick of a sick angst-instilling plant hasn’t grown an inch since we first bought her when we moved into this house back in 2004. No one damn inch. No lemons. No fruit. It has produced nothing, this despite regular multi-weekly watering which I estimate has probably cost well over a couple of hundred dollars (4x per week multiplied by 660 weeks, which is like 2,500 waterings, plus an $18 bag of fertilizer every few years, plus the irrigation system being serviced annually, plus all the personal wear and tear of standing outside with a water hose in my hand quenching the thirst of this worthless cocksucker of a plant or tree that’s sapping me of my money and my sanity.
When I see that stupid plant, I don’t see a lemon tree. I see a middle finger.
But — it’s a lemon!!!
So. Persistence paid off. Yeah, you may not be able to get blood from a stone. But you can get a lemon in the Las Vegas desert. Provided you’re willing to invest $300 or so and wait 13 fucking years.
Wait. Something’s wrong with this picture. Aren’t lemons yellow? Why is the fruit green?
Did we buy a lime tree instead and get taken?
I’d go back to the store and demand my money back. But the plant nursery that sold us this “lemon tree” went out of business in the Great Recession of 2008 and is now a proctologist’s office.
Walking into the Golden Steer is like visiting the ghosts of Las Vegas pasts.
If these walls could talk, just imagine the stories they could tell.
Last night’s motley crew guest list included Andy Rich (Golden Nugget Poker Manager), Todd Anderson (Creator of television show Poker Night in America), Vin Narayanan (who’s doing some lucrative deal in Hong Kong that’s succeeding despite making no logical sense whatsoever) and yours truly. Our frightening foursome plopped down in a red-leather booth. Almost instantly, we had appetizer cocktails in one hand and dinner menus in the other.
Now, that’s service.
The Golden Steer has been in business for like — forever. It’s a really weird location, helplessly bookended into a seedy strip mall right off Las Vegas Blvd., on Sahara. A few doors down there’s a busy cigar bar that you can smell from a block away. The restaurant, in the shadow of the new Lucky Dragon casino, is bordered by ghetto apartments. Fortunately, there’s a spindle of rusted barbed wire atop a cinder block wall separating the slums from the Golden Steer. That way, we can all feel safe while feasting on dead animals.
If these directions don’t make any sense, then try this: Look for the giant sign with the fat cow out in front. Everyone in town knows the fat cow. Err, steer — whatever.
Years ago, the Golden Steer was the favorite hangout of the Rat Pack. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis, Jr. and company used to dine here regularly. The trio of crooners even had their own private booths (each still in place and memorialized with plaques).
The Golden Steer has undergone a sparkling facelift since my last visit a few years ago when it seemed the old cow’s best days were way behind her. While the inner decor has been updated, it still screams “Old Las Vegas.” You don’t see places like this around anymore because they’ve all been bulldozed and paved over by an all-too-crowded kitchen of celebrity chefs.
Now that you know a little something about the Golden Steer, here’s where the story really gets good.
While Andy, Todd, Vin, and I were solving the world’s problems last night while trying to get away from our own, the scene across from us in the opposite red leather booth caught our attention and kept us captivated nearly to the point of becoming a distraction. About 15 feet away, a scruffy bearded man wearing a brown western hat dined with a young lady. The man’s coat looked disgustingly filthy. His hat was bent out of shape and wouldn’t fetch $2 at a garage sale. If you examined this scene for no more than five seconds, you’d have made a reasonable guess the man was homeless.
No big deal, really. This is Las Vegas. You see a lot of weirdness in Las Vegas.
At some point, the scruffy man asked the waiter to remove a portrait from the restaurant wall (yes, I’m serious). Then, he requested the portrait be positioned next to him and his lady friend, in the booth. If the scruffy man wasn’t a curious sideshow to watch before based on appearances, well now he had our full attention — at least as much attention you could muster without turning into a gawker.
So, the large framed portrait of a movie star was nestled into the booth while the scruffy man feasted on supper. It was hard to tell who this was exactly in the picture, but after some artful eye-dodging, someone in our party finally recognized the portrait was of the late actor Charles Bronson.
The scruffy man, the lady friend, and Charles Bronson’s portrait all seemed to be quietly enjoying themselves, although Bronson didn’t say much. Bronson also didn’t eat or drink anything. Those delicious delights were left to the other two, who emptied at least one bottle of expensive wine followed by a bottle of champagne. I tried to catch a glimpse of the labels to see what they were drinking, but I didn’t want to seem too nosy. One can only gawk so much without causing a scene.
Of course, we had to play the whispering game of speculation. Who in the hell is this guy? He sure looks like a pauper, but he’s dining in a fancy restaurant, guzzling down wine and champagne. Who could make such a wild request to have a portrait removed from the wall — and then have that request honored by the staff? And the woman really seems to dig him!
An eccentric billionaire?
The owner of the restaurant?
A perverted Charles Bronson fanatic?
Who was he?
Just as we were preparing to leave, the scruffy man and his friend got up also. They made a swift bee-line for the front door, hopefully not leaving stoic and speechless Charles Bronson to pay the bill.
Consumed by curiosity, we stopped the waiter in mid-stride cold in his tracks.
“Who in the hell was that scruffy guy in the hat? Do you know him?” we asked.
“Oh, that was Nicolas Cage. He’s a regular here. He comes in all the time.”
Note: This is the third and final article in a trilogy on my reminiscence of Dallas. Read PART 1 here. Read PART 2 here.
When asked why I ended up enrolling in the University of Texas state school system, the truth is — my S.A.T. scores weren’t high enough to get into Rice.
Sure, I’m proud that I graduated from a state university. But part of me still peaks across the imaginary crevasse separating the haves from have-nots, connivingly curious about life on the other side. As with many kids who grew up working-class who spent our adolescence checking price tags and scrambling for lunch money, we couldn’t afford the high tuition to a private school. Our parents weren’t rich enough. We weren’t quite smart enough to get academic scholarships. And, we lacked the talent to play sports or do something else creative to get the tuition-free ride. So, stuck on the poor side of the tracks and frowned upon by trust-fund BMW-driving brats, that left some scars. I admit this experience fueled a personal resentment and class awareness which remains to this day.
Wait — wasn’t this article supposed to be about “Why I hate SMU?”
Yep. I’ll get to this in just a moment. Hang on.
I wanted badly to get into Rice University, which is located in Houston. Rice was really super cool. It had a small enrollment compared to most other major colleges — only about 5,000 students total. But Rice produced many extraordinary graduates and also enjoyed a stellar academic reputation. Rice was widely considered to be Texas’ version of an Ivy League school. But what appealed to me most was Rice’s scandalous counterculture. Sometime during the late 1970s at a college football halftime show, the Rice University marching band paraded into a formation in the shape of — now imagine the utter shock of this — a giant marijuana leaf. Then, before 20,000 or so rain-spattered fans huddled in disbelief in an 80,000-seat stadium the Rice Owls marching band blasted out the song “Mary Jane,” by funk-rocker Rick James. While bands elsewhere around the country played stale Broadway tunes and marched lock-step in strict military formation, Rice did the unthinkable. I wasn’t part of the drug culture, but I still looked at that bravado as something that I wanted to be a part of. Students being crazy and free-spirited and having the times of their lives — all while getting a first-class education. That was for me. Where do I sign up? The movie Animal House should have been filmed at Rice.
Side Note: Rice’s academic deeds are equally contentious. Consider the controversial report issued a few years ago by the James Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, which obliterates the failed “War on Drugs.” [READ MORE HERE]
Rive had two academic counterparts within the state of Texas. TCU, in Fort Worth, was very much like Rice so far as size goes, but severely lacked its academic reputation. Plus, TCU was Viagra hard for Bible-thumping Christianity. TCU is, after all, Texas *Christian* University. Even though the city was just 30 miles from Dallas, it might as well have been in the suburbs of Outer Mongolia. I loathed everything about Fort Forth, as did just about everyone else from Dallas. So, there was no way I’d ever go to TCU. To me, Fort Worth was a stupid hick town. No one from Dallas ever went to TCU. Not even Christians. It just didn’t happen.
The other upscale private university within Texas many of us wanted to attend was Southern Methodist University — “SMU” for short. The red-bricked SMU campus is fortressed within the Highland Park and University Park sections of super-snooty North Dallas. It’s Beverly Hills sans the palm trees smoking a crack pipe while riding a polo pony wearing an argyle sweater with a bow tie. Envision SMU’s campus on Mockingbird Lane and every stately manner house and residency within a three-mile radius being worth at least a couple of million dollars — and way up. It’s Dallas’ version of The Hamptons or Martha’s Vineyard or Palm Beach, only with far more ritzy homes and lots more right-wing rich assholes. Indeed, even though Dallas is solidly Democratic politically speaking, this is one of the most conservative and uber-wealthy neighborhoods in America. The musty homes and the musty people and the musty attitudes come straight out of the ’50s — the 1650’s. That’s SMU.
To be fair, SMU has produced an interesting gaggle of graduates — from former first lady Laura Bush (who seems like a really nice person) to television mogul Aaron Spelling (who produced many of the shitty big-haired bimbo-brained television shows that most of us grew up loving and addicted to during the 70s and 80s)….from H.L. Hunt (once the richest man in the world) to his son Lamar Hunt (who founded the American Football League and owned the Kansas City Chiefs)….from actor Powers Boothe (who died recently — R.I.P.) to Oscar-winning actress Kathy Bates (who was cast in her first movie after someone saw her performing in a college play). SMU also produced lots of great football players — from “Dandy” Don Meredith to Eric Dickerson, plus many more.
SMU wasn’t always despised as it is today. During the 1970s, my father took me to most of their college football games, which were played then at the old blue and white striped Cotton Bowl until SMU illegally went pro and moved into the horrors of football warehousing — Texas Stadium. The Mustangs were plenty terrible way back then. But they were gutsy. They were almost always competitive and wildly entertaining. Seems like SMU lost every game I attended by a score of about 45-36, but we always sat comfortably 25 rows up on the 45-yard line since barely half of the cavernous stadium was filled with fans of a lousy losing football team.
Eventually, SMU and its corrupt alumni living in football-mad Dallas decided they were fed up with losing all the time and didn’t care any longer for playing in a stadium smack dab in the middle of a Black neighborhood, known as Fair Park. So, they broke just about every rule in the college football rulebook in order to build themselves into a national title contender. Before the conversion over to the dark side, no good athlete wanted to go to SMU, especially since the in-state powers Texas and Texas A&M were so strong and to the north Oklahoma basically used the entire state of Texas as it’s minor league football farm system. So, SMU had to get super creative. They slipped football players envelopes full of cash and gave others new cars to drive — just to play at a rich school in North Dallas.
The tipping point for my loathing of SMU and its horrible graduates (except for Kathy Bates) and the start of my declaration of class warfare came during, appropriately enough, during a football game. While attending the annual SMU-Texas rivalry when both teams were legitimate national champion contenders, I experienced a true moment of personal and philosophical epiphany.
At that game, on the opposite side of the field (I was sitting in the University of Texas section), the SMU student section unfurled a huge banner like 50-feet long. It was large enough for everyone in the stadium to see. The banner was unfurled. It read: “Our maids and butlers went to Texas.”
What the fuck! Hey, it was bad enough SMU openly cheated to recruit players. Everyone knew those crimes were going on, which ultimately led to the hammer being thrown down called “the death penalty,” which all but obliterated SMU’s football program. It was bad enough that the perfectly sculpted students who all looked like Tucker Calrson were all spoiled brats who never worked a day in their lives. It was really bad that SMU was, academically speaking, an inferior school to Texas (quick — name anyone from SMU who’s ever done shit — except for Kathy Bates?).
I hate SMU. I still hate SMU. SMU sucks. Unless I’m betting on SMU. Then, I cheer for SMU and I become SMU’s biggest, fattest, poorest cheerleader.
I love Kuby’s.
Kuby’s is a German-themed restaurant that first opened in 1961. The family-owned market and eatery nestled in the corner of Snider Plaza, due northwest of the SMU campus off Hillcrest, draws a steady clientele of both on and off campus loyalists — including me. My first Kuby’s meal was sometime around 1978. Since then, I estimate that I’ve eaten at Kuby’s at least 60-70 times, including this my most recent visit.
Here’s my meal, ordered for lunch. Question: What do you think this cost?
Try this — $7.95
Wanna’ know the difference between good versus great? The Details.
The attention to details here is marvelous. Three piping hot house-made sausages of your choice. Two different kinds of mustard are served, including spicy. Not just one generous side of sauerkraut, but two sides — cut fresh from white cabbage and red cabbage. The German potato salad is warm and perfectly seasoned. Rye bread quartered served with real butter. A couple of pickles serve as garnish. Plus, a handy steak knife to make shoveling easier. This is absolute cheap meal perfection.
Dallas is the best city in the country for outstanding cheap eats (okay perhaps, Los Angeles ties for first). This is a city packed with stupendously tasty meals. Kuby’s is sort of the embodiment of affordable excellence, am out-of-the-way hermit for insider locals that many people probably have no idea exists, especially in restaurant-heavy Dallas, consistently melding high-quality ingredients with outstanding value.
The layout: Kuby’s is divided into two sections. There’s a neighborhood market with a butcher on the premises. European products are sold here. It was also something of a cultural center, for a while. For many years before the Internet existed and made international news and foreign languages easily accessible, this was practically the only place in Dallas you could pick up fresh copies of Der Spiegel or Frankfurter Allgemeiner. All the waitresses and staff spoke fluent German (and stil, from what I saw last week).
The restaurant — open for both lunch and early dinner — offers instant counter seating if things are too busy and heavy wooden lodge-style tables and chairs, as you might expect in the Bavarian Alps. Lunches are typically bustling. The counter is mostly stacked with people reading who pretty much keep to themselves. Tables are filled with college students and Highland Park locals.
My only disappointment with Kuby’s was the recent shocking discovery that they’d changed their traditional recipe for the classic German delicacy — Black Forest Cake. For decades as long as I could remember, Kuby’s used to serve the best Black Forest Cake in America. I usually ordered two slices. Yes, it was that great. The former cake used to be multi-layered with a perfect balance of white Bavarian cream, fresh tart cherries, chocolate sponge cake, and an unusual crunchy texture that made each bite of torte a screaming orgasm for the taste buds.
Inexplicably, Kuby’s altered the dessert. It wasn’t nearly as good. So, I asked the waitress about this and she said desserts are now made out of house. Perhaps it was the cost. Perhaps it was a matter of space. Perhaps it was the time it took to make fresh daily desserts for what amounts to a lowe profit margin. Whatever the reason, changing that classic recipe and bringing in an outside supplier was a huge and a big letdown. I wanted two slices. This time, I ordered just one. Mega-saddenz.
Even with the disappointment of dessert, my meal was almost as good as I remember. Kuby’s receives my highest recommendation for German food lovers who are looking for quick service and extraordinary value.
Kuby’s the only thing about SMU I love — oh yes, and also Kathy Bates.
Today, I woke up in a cozy bed. I drank a fresh cup of coffee. I took a hot shower. Then, I turned on the television set and devoured a hearty breakfast.
Right then and there, as the ghastly images of an unprecedented natural catastrophe in Houston flashed before my eyes, it occurred to me that several million people living in Texas and Louisiana weren’t able to enjoy the simplest of pleasures most of us take for granted.
Deep down, I do think most people are good people. I believe most people want to help others when they can. Despite our differences, I’m convinced that most people want to help their neighbors and fellow citizens in times of crisis — even those they do not know. And, I’m just as certain that most people don’t care about the color of someone else’s skin, or how he or she votes in an election, or what lifestyle is chosen — good people will usually do the right thing when acts of human compassion are needed the most.
The relief effort now underway in Houston shows the better side of all of us. Yes, we are petty. Yes, we are spiteful. Yes, we are flawed. Yes, we make mistakes. But we also care. We want to reach out and help people in their time of need. Many have already done so.
Yet, some people do go the extra mile. Some people make the added sacrifice. Some people risk their own lives to try and save others. These are the true heroes.
In the past few days, I’ve seen and read amazing stories of some remarkable people. They have opened up their homes to total strangers. They have driven hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles, towing ramshackle boats to rescue those who are stranded in their flooded homes, who are waiting for a hero to arrive. They have donated money, and food, and emergency supplies. They have taken in pets and moved them into foster homes. They have worked tirelessly around the clock — all while I slept, while I drank a fresh cup of coffee, while I took a hot shower, while I watched television, while I devoured a hearty breakfast.
A Houston police officer even gave his life. His name was Steve Perez. Wait a minute….his name *IS* Steve Perez. Say that name. Say it aloud. He deserves to be known and remembered, not as a “was” but an “is.” Steve Perez is a hero.
I’ve written before that I’m far more impressed by casual acts of kindness and random good deeds than the supposed marvels and talents of those who are rich and famous. We sure have a peculiar way of defining our “heroes,” all too often associating personal valor with the talent to throw a ball or look beautiful in a movie. Too frequently we misconstrue heroism with money, fame, and power. Willfully accepting these shiny objects of superfluous celebrity stands as the very antithesis of being heroic, since doing so calls attention to oneself instead of one’s character and deeds, and letting genuine acts of human compassion speak for themselves.
Alas, the true heroes among us are not famous. More often than not, true heroism is anonymous. Heroes work in nursing homes, often for appallingly low pay and for little recognition. They serve as caretakers, sometimes without the reciprocity of simple gratitude. They willingly volunteer to help the less fortunate. They fight to defend wildlife and protect the environment. They commit their lives to justice. They go out on nightly patrol, trying to keep our streets and neighborhoods safe. I will admit, these heroes are much stronger than me. They perform admirable deeds that in some cases I do not think I could do. I think that’s what makes them heroes.
Right now, Houston has a serious problem. It’s a problem of unfathomable size and scope. Dealing with these problems will not be easy. But solving the very worst of Houston’s immediate problems will be an absolute given, a certainty, all thanks to the many heroes out there working and volunteering as I type and you read, heroes with names we do not know.