The rules were as strict as they were clear.
Every Romanian you encountered was presumed to be a spy. It was that simple.
During the bitter final chapter to what was called “the Cold War,” tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union – and it’s satellite governments across Eastern Europe – were very real.
The stalemate was especially tense during the late 1980′s. The U.S. and U.S.S.R. engaged in a tit-for-tat high-stakes diplomatic chess game, stemming from mutual paranoia, out-of-control defense establishments, and an embarrassing espionage caper gone horribly wrong in Moscow when it was discovered the newly-constructed American Embassy building and compound had become completely compromised with listening devices, surveillance, and other intelligence-gathering devices planted by Soviet “construction workers.”
A certain degree of political posturing was to be expected. But the moral high-handedness here was nauseating. It’s terribly naive, even shameful, to believe the Soviets wouldn’t try to compromise internal security at the new American Embassy, especially given this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to plant bugs during the construction phase. The American government’s reaction to this breech of diplomatic etiquette and direct attack on national sovereignty was the ultimate in hypocrisy. You can be absolutely certain we engaged in identical intelligence-gathering practices whenever there was an opportunity — and that goes for any world capital where both Americans and Russians were present.
A DARK PLACE
The first thing you notice is the darkness.
Romania was a dark place in 1989. Streetlights shut off at night. Homes were kept in darkness. The one and only state-run television station broadcast just a few hours a day. Light bulbs were limited to 25-watts. Families turned on gas stoves to stay warm at night because there wasn’t any heat. Streets were completely deserted in the evening. Bucharest — Romania’s capital city of 2 million — choked on the poison of diesel fumes and coal dust inciting the ghostly gray haze hanging over the city like an intransigent fog.
And yet for all its bleakness, this was the least of Romania’s problems.
Staring out the window of a silent and nearly empty Lufthansa Airlines flight which had taken off two hours earlier from Frankfurt and was now headed to Bucharest gave me sufficient pause to realize, for the first time, that I’d be stepping out of one world into another. I’d soon be trading an easy and familiar life for an experience sure to be far more challenging and lesser known. Leaving what was once called “the free world” to live and work behind the ominous Iron Curtain was the closest thing imaginable, I suppose, to time travel.
Indeed, flying into Bucharest that night was like going back in time.
Of all the old hard-line Communist regimes, aside from Enver Hoxha’s diabolical rule and the subsequent fallout years afterward in Albania, Romania’s situation was the most repressive and dire. Romania’s longtime ruler, Nicolae Ceausescu had been on the cover of Newsweek magazine weeks earlier, the headline fitly labeling him “The Last Stalinist.”
This dark place was to be my home for the next two years.
The mainstream media often get things notoriously wrong.
Consider the case of Mark Twain’s “death” being erroneously reported in the (now-defunct) New York Journal daily newspaper in 1897, eliciting his famous quote in response, “the report of my death was an exaggeration.”
It seems mainstream media haven’t learned much over the last 116 years. In recent months, major media have reported poker’s popularity is declining. Last month, the Associated Press ran a national news story claiming the poker boom is over (See Feb. 28 article: “As Trend Wanes, Vegas Casinos Fold on Poker Rooms”). As evidence, the report cited a number of poker rooms closing down in Las Vegas — as if that’s really the metric of global popularity. Hint: It isn’t. The AP article claims: In Sin City, epicenter of the poker craze, at least eight rooms have folded in the past two years. The trend is also playing out in Mississippi riverboats, Indian casinos and gambling halls near big cities from California to Florida.
Even usually reliable and more knowledeable sources in poker media are spreading the myth. Since “Black Friday” in April 2011, numerous feature stories posted at various poker news sites have spotlighted the negatives — including (professed) declining popularity in some markets, the cancellation of poker programs on television, lackluster tournament attendance, and the demise of online poker inside the United States.
To be perfectly clear, poker does face serious challenges ahead. However, this assertion that poker’s popularity is declining is not only demonstratively false, it grossly neglects plenty of evidence which suggests otherwise. In fact, the opposite is true. Poker has never been more popular than at this very moment.
Fact: More people worldwide are playing poker today than ever before.
The best Italian restaurant in Las Vegas is….
According to the Las Vegas Review-Journal and the annual “Readers Choice Awards” released yesterday, Olive Garden was voted as the “Best Italian Restaurant” in Las Vegas.” This appeared in the 2013 edition of the “Best of Las Vegas” section.
Excuse me for a moment.
What the fuck!
Among all the outstanding Italian restaurants in Las Vegas and there are many — Rao’s, B&B Ristorante, Barlotta di Mare, Onda Ristorante (Mirage), Valentino, just to name a few — a mediocre family-style chain restaurant best-known for its breadsticks was picked above all the rest. I certainly understand why many LVRJ readers might not be familiar with pricey upscale restaurants. So, instead couldn’t they have chosen something that’s at least decent like Maggiano’s, Cafe Roma, Pasta Mia, Terra Rosa, Brio, or a restaurant in that class? Hell, I could have lived with Bucca di Peppo — which is really testing my tolerance. But fucking Olive Garden?
Excuse me one more time.
What finished second? Pizza Hut?
Go ahead. Like Olive Garden all you want. I like Kentucky Fried Chicken occasionally, too. But KFC is not the best fucking chicken in the city! How in the hell is this spaghetti house picked among at least 100 decent other restaurants? Vai a cagare!
Until this moment, I was vehemently opposed to the practice of waterboarding, which has been classified as form of cruel an unusual punishment. In fact, it’s torture. I now wish to amend my position. I’m now in favor of waterboarding. In fact, I want to be the one who administers the torture. Any idiot who voted for the Olive Garden as the “Best Italian Restaurant in Las Vegas” should be should have to suffer some kind of pain and humiliation.
These Readers Poll choices appeared in yesterday’s newspaper. Marieta read this news to me while I was driving. I spent the next 30 minutes screaming profanities, taking it out in what can only be described as road rage.
Later after I finally calmed down, I asked her how in the fuck could anyone be so stupid to vote for the Olive Garden? That’s like asking people who makes the best hamburger and McDonald’s being chosen as the winner. So, if this is nothing but a popularity contest would these same dolts chose Ford as the best car? Or Budweiser as the best beer? She was as puzzled as I was.
What really alarming about these results is — newspaper readers are likely to be more intelligent than average (non-reading) citizens. After all, they subscribe to a local paper. They keep up with current events. The read daily. Moreover, those who actually take time to respond to a “Readers Poll” are probably even more aware of what’s happening in the community — which means being familiar with more restaurants than the average person. So, what does this damning evidence say about the intelligence of the average Las Vegas citizen?
Question is — are these results typical of what one might expect in other cities? Or, is Las Vegas just full of classless morons?
Perhaps the Olive Garden is the only Italian restaurant many people know. This theory is validated by additional evidence. The “Best Italian Restaurant” selection was but one baffling moment of outrage among many. It’s hardly an isolated incident. Consider the other “winners” in various food and drink categories:
Best seafood restaurant: Red Lobster.
Best steakhouse: Outback Steakhouse
Best Chinese restaurant: PF Changs
Oh no……excuse me again.
We’re going to need a helluva’ lot more waterboards.
Writer’s Note: This is a continuation of PART 1 and PART 2, which can be read here.
Con artists are intriguing. Swindlers fascinate us.
Witnessing a crime where the tools of the trade consist of pure intellect and brass balls is infinitely more entertaining than watching a petty stick up. Alas, if the pen is mightier than the sword, then shrewdness is mightier still.
My phone rang Wednesday morning at 7:30 am. An ungodly hour.
“I’ve got his baseball plays,” the voice on the other end said. It was Peter Falcone. “He’s got seven plays today. How many can you take?”
A weary-eyed shuffle over to the computer ensued. I could easily get down $3,000 a game. Even better, since Pinnacle was one of my offshore betting sites, I could save Falcone’s jeweler contact a hundred or two a game on losses, due to their reduced vig. Most middlemen would have dicked the unsuspecting sap on the betting end. But that’s no way to do business — especially with an effortless upside guaranteed already.
“Oh wow, he’s going to love you for that! He’s going to be very excited when he hears the prices he’s getting is better than he’s expecting and are in his favor!”
A short tutorial on sports betting is needed here. Most baseball books deal what’s called a 20-cent line. That means two opposing teams which are listed at “pick ‘em” are lined at the price of $11o to win $100. If you add the difference between the two numbers, that’s 20 cents, thus the term “20 cent line.” However, a game that might have Cleveland -140 / Kansas City +120 elsewhere would be lined at Pinnacle at a discounted vig price — perhaps at Cleveland -136 / Kansas City +129.
Well, with Pinnacle, I was sometimes getting close to a 10-cent line. That meant the jeweler was getting the best price on the planet. A few cents a game might not seem like a big deal. But it is. Multiply a hundred losses by an extra $150 in vig on each game, and that’s fifteen grand over the course of a baseball season.
“He’s going to love you!” Falcone shouted.
The plays were posted. Without much of a forethought, I’d fired about $21,000 worth of betting action. I hung up the phone and went back to bed totally oblivious to the fact that my sports betting ship had just blasted into an iceberg. And here I was, dozing away inside the cabin totally unaware I’d soon be in need of a lifeboat. No one could possibly foresee the disaster about to come.
Later that night, I logged into my Pinnacle account. I was delighted to see I was ahead something like $11,800 on the day. The New York jeweler had gone 5-2, and made a quick 12 dimes. Talk about easy money. If only I continued what I was doing and the man broke even from this point forward until Sunday, I’d collect my share which was $1,000 — plus ten percent of the profit. Theoretically, I was up $2,180 which was my cut alone. And I hadn’t done a fucking thing.
Goddamn, this was sweet.
I was tempted to ask Falcone if he knew of any more New York jewelers.