Elton John’s preeminence as a flamboyant rock n’ roll troubadour is deeply grooved into our vinyl consciousness.
His mesmerizing 1970’s songbook is arguably the most astounding output of any solo artist over the past 50 years. While his gold records revolved at 33 rpm, his fame spiraled at 78 speed. His eccentricities, outlandish stage costumes, a sham marriage when he tried to play it straight, and hypersexuality were fodder for ceaseless gossip and scandal.
His musical career soared to extraordinary highs, packed sports stadiums, and survived craterous lows. His celebrity remains indisputably global, gender neutral, cross-generational, and yet all of his music is crassly commercial. To millions of fans and even those who aren’t, but can’t help but hum the harmonies to his hit songs, Elton John isn’t just a stylish trendsetter. He’s painfully honest, wallowed in imperfection.
“I have taken every drug; I have fucked everything that moves,” Elton John once told a startled interviewer.
So given these realities, a well-documented public life, combined with Elton’s John’s unapologetic openness about his private ordeals, how is Rocketman, the purported collaborative movie biography, such a misfire?
There’s no excuse for this. None. I should have loved Rocketman. Ostensibly, I’m the target audience. This movie was custom-made for devoted fans who grew up with his music. Consider Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Elton John’s 1973 double album masterpiece, was one of the first records I ever purchased with allowance money. I recall the excitement, hastily unwrapping the new album jacket encased in cellophane, the smell of the record, carefully placing vinyl discs upon the family turntable so as not to scratch it, hoisting the needle, sprawling myself across the shag carpet, and then following along with liner notes penned by lyricist Bernie Taupin as Elton John’s music took me to imaginary places that seemed otherworldly.
How could they possibly blow this?
There are so many things annoying about this movie, I don’t know where to begin. So, let’s start at the beginning.
In the opening scene, Elton John enters rehab. He’s been on a steady decline for a decade. He joins a group therapy session at what looks to be an AA meeting. Inexplicably, he’s dressed in full stage regalia — looking something like a giant insect that swallowed a court jester. Yet no one in the group seems to think it’s a big deal that Elton John, one of the most famous people in the world at the time, is sitting there, about to tell us his life story. Are these people alive? The rest of the addicts just sit there the whole time like they’re listening to Joe the Plumber apologize about drinking way too many beers at the company picnic.
So, the next two hours of therapy are utterly dominated by this self-centered superstar obsessing about his life, causing me to wonder — hey, what about the other poor souls who have their own addiction problems? Don’t they get some talk time? Do they have to sit here for two hours and listen to this guy babble? I guess so — because it’s Elton John.
Snippets of Elton John’s many hits appear throughout the film, although he sings none of them. More on that creative oddity in just a moment. Most of us will recognize every song. There’s no filler, nor experimentation here. We get a predictable stream of best sellers. The movie soundtrack has all the originality of a “Greatest Hits” compilation.
The songs intend to stitch together some hopelessly disjoined biographical timeline when none actually exists. To illustrate the awkward misuse of music, when Elton John launches into his lengthy confessional by reminiscing about his early childhood growing up as Reginald Dwight (his real name), a flashback transposes us into a 1950s street dance overlapped with The Bitch is Back, off the 1974 album Caribou. How did this scene make it past the first draft? Why is a 7-year-old boy from Middlesex barking out The Bitch is Back? That was the first instant I leaned forward in my theater seat and went — “huh?”
That bizarre opener pretty much obliterated any appreciation of artistic expression. Elton John’s hits are recklessly scattered all over the storyline. Wherever any lyric might coincidentally connect to a real event in his life, it’s exploited to the max, though in no way reflected what was going on at the time. For instance, we hear the early songs, mostly composed when Elton John had no discernable demons nor any destructive bad habits, which are misused contextually so as to imply that each song was a cry for help, the emotional intensity magnified by the succession of each album. Moreover, Elton John’s song lyrics — so often sweltering in pain and loss — was almost entirely the creation of collaborative co-writer Bernie Taupin, who for the most part escaped his songwriting partner’s voyage aboard the paparazzi parade branded the Titanic. Taupin may indeed have projected some emotions onto Elton John, the performer. But the film’s quilting of music and narrative is disingenuous.
To the film’s credit, all songs were re-recorded and sung by Taron Egerton, who does quite an admirable job playing Elton John. Egerton, not widely known before taking this role, was a bold casting decision and he delivers both commanding vocals and convincing performance. Egerton’s challenges cannot be understated. Other rockstar movie bios usually miss the target, often embarrassingly so, which is tough to hit when the superstar is as prominent a public figure as Elton John. However, Egerton nails both the incomparable musical demands and the swaggering persona. Even more impressive, the actor gives a credible performance transforming into the self-destructive rock icon over the span of a decade, meandering back and forth between a joyously contrived onstage performer juxtaposed against the miserable misanthrope left alone in hotel suites with a bottle of vodka and spoon piled with cocaine.
Way too much of the movie focuses on Elton John’s continuous slide into addiction — with drugs, alcohol, and sex. It’s an all-too-familiar story we’ve seen before. There’s nothing new here. While Elton John’s personal problems do make for an empathetic confessional, I’d have preferred greater insight into his songwriting and the creative collaboration between John and Taupin. The movie cheapens what must have been a grueling artistic process — releasing ten gold albums in just six years — grossly oversimplifying the effort it took to create so many memorable pop songs. Artistic revelation is reduced to the pianist taking a sheet of paper with lyrics scribbled by Taubin and then composing a near perfect melody within 15 seconds. Frankly, it’s ridiculous.
Audiences may have some difficulty commensurating with Elton John’s problems. By the mid-1970s, the rock icon was reportedly pulling in $85 million a year. He had everything going his direction — prodigal talent, fame, riches, and the creative freedom to do anything he wanted. Yet, Rocketman crashes and burns. Yes, this did happen. Just don’t expect me to be sympathetic.
The film goes to painstaking lengths to convince us Elton John’s emotional breakdown was borne out of a childhood void of love. His parents, who divorced, are reduced to cruel caricatures. Neither are appreciative of his talent or success. In real life, Elton John has spoken affectionately about his parents, especially his mother. A 2013 interview with NPR’s Terry Gross on NPR provided the revelation that even when young and confused about his sexual orientation, Elton John’s mother was emotionally supportive. So, either Elton John was lying then in the interview or the filmmakers now have taken their artistic license and run off a cliff.
Rocketman does manage to take its touchiest subject and portray it in a manner so as to be both true to the subject matter while not ruffling feathers of the conventional mainstream. Portraying homosexual acts on film does pose a serious dilemma for filmmakers. Whether we’ll admit it or not, that remains taboo in cinema. Unlike Bohemian Rhapsody, which somehow managed to brush the gay Freddie Mercury completely under the rug, this film portrays Elton John’s steady romances and flings with credibility, without the exploitation and sensationalism. Straight men won’t wince.
Rocketman has received mostly positive reviews. Perhaps this speaks to the evergreen nature of Elton John’s immense musical catalog. Or maybe, critics rightly perceive this film biography as honest to its subject matter. Then, there’s Taron Egerton’s magnificent performance. There are things to like about Rocketman.
Unfortunately, this marvelous musical journey is marred by unnecessary distractions and way too many voids. By the final scene where Elton John enters the MTV age and performs what turns out to be the self-prophetic I’m Still Standing, a catchy ripoff of Gloria Gayner’s mega-hit I Will Survive, we’ve gained no added insight as to the man behind the glittery glasses nor his music. Never mind that I’m Still Standing was written years before Elton John entered rehab in 1990 and had nothing all to do with the recovery process. Like more than a dozen annoyances in this film, the truth isn’t bent. It’s broken.
Perhaps the gravest falsehood in the film is an early scene when Elton John is asked by music publisher Dick James what stage name he’ll take for his first record. On a whim, the young pianist says “Elton”……and then “John” as his eyes wander and fixate on a photograph of John Lennon hanging in James’ London office. Fact is, Elton John actually took his stage name from London bluesman Long John Baldry. So, why lie?
Quoting Elton John, the appropriate description of Rocketman is indeed a sad situation:
It’s sad, so sad It’s a sad, sad situation And it’s getting more and more absurd. It’s sad, so sad Why can’t we talk it over? Oh, it seems to me That sorry seems to be the hardest word.
MY RATING: I give Rocketman 3 stars out of 1o. This film is a pass, even if you’re a big fan of Elton John’s music.
Next time, skip the Dom Perignon and Cristal, grossly overrated, mass-produced, factory-manufactured, overhyped, big-name brands which leverage decades of clever corporate-driven global marketing and hype.
Instead, try a smaller-scale, hand-made, family-produced Grand Cru Champagne from a single vineyard — which offers far more distinctive taste and unique character, often at less than half the price.
It’s time for Americans to demystify Champagne.
We tend to view Champagne as a once-a-year luxury. We drink champagne mostly on special occasions — like New Year’s Eve and at weddings.
In this country, Champagne is largely associated with celebration. Order champagne in a restaurant sometime, and the first question you’re likely to be asked is, “what are you celebrating.”
Actually, Champagne is a treat for all occasions. In fact, Champagne deserves to be experienced year round. It should be enjoyed by everyone. Champagne and its close cousin sparking wine are both accessible and affordable to drinkers on all budgets.
Unfortunately, Champagne is widely perceived as expensive. Indeed, some rare vintages can cost thousands of dollars. But there are also some wonderfully drinkable and affordably-priced Champagnes worth trying which are indistinguishable to everyone except those with the most sophisticated palates. Of special note is sparkling wine, deserving far closer attention than they’ve been given.
Don’t be fooled by the distinction between the classic “Champagne” versus “sparkling wine.” The only difference lies in geography. The grapes are mostly the same. Sparkling wine uses identical production techniques as Champagne. While the world’s supreme bottles tend to be from France, far more economical options are readily available from Spain, Italy, California, and other regions of the wine-making world.
Fact is, I’m a budget-conscious drinker. I’ve enjoyed plenty of delicious sparkling wines costing under $10 a bottle. I like to get the most taste bang for my buck.
Here are two very affordable recommendations which are widely available just about everywhere:
Rondel — This is a Spanish-made Cava offered in Brut, Semi Seco, Rosé, Gold and Platinum styles. It’s a fantastic buy for the money, typically about $8 a bottle. It’s a perfect Summer refreshment.
Segura Viudas — Here’s another Spanish Cava with a much wider range of price points. However, the simple $9 bottle (Brut) is every bubble as enjoyable as the costlier options.
When it comes to bona fide Champagne, which is always made exclusively from grapes produced in the region of France with the same name, we’ve largely been fooled. We’ve been led astray. We fell for the hype. So now, let’s clear up some gross misperceptions and try and set the record straight.
Ask most Americans to pick the best Champagne, and Dom Perignon or Cristal always are the odds on favorites. They’re certainly the best-known brands in the U.S. and throughout the world. Truth is, however, Dom Perignon and Cristal are grossly overrated, mass-produced, factory-manufactured, overhyped big-name brands which leverage decades of clever corporate-driven global marketing. They are coasting purely on reputation.
In other words, you’re forking over big bucks for the label, paying a premium price just for the popular name. Please, quit buying the hype. Stop it. Quit being a sucker for overpriced Champagne.
Dom Perignon, manufactured by Moet Chandon, produces about 5 million bottles annually. Five million. Hence, there’s nothing exclusive about it. Grapes are grown in multiple vineyards (most not even on the Moet Chandon estate) and processed inside a mass factory. All production is automated. The first time most of these expensive bottles have been touched by any human hand is the time you open it. Each bottle of Dom has about as much independent character and personality as a can of Coke.
Cristal, the other well-known premium Champagne, is made by Louis Roederer. Production levels run about one-million bottles per year. One million bottles. That’s not exclusive. That’s Pepsi with a cork. Cristal was originally the favorite drink of Russian royalty during the mid-19th Century. More recently, it’s become associated with Hip Hop culture. It’s the “go to” beverage at bottle service in nightclubs. Ordering a bottle of Cristal is a calling card announcing that you’ve made it big. Actually, it shows you’re a chump who knows next to nothing about Champagne.
It’s all hype, folks.
Admittedly, Dom Perignon and Cristal do buy the very best grapes grown by growers in the Champagne region. Their standards are exceedingly high. Accordingly, these Champagnes are always outstanding. But they’re also way too pricey. The average bottle runs about $150 to $250 — double that figure in fine restaurants and then quadruple the retail price at nightclubs. They’re a rip-off. Let me put it even more bluntly — if you’re ordering Dom Perignon or Cristal, you have more money than brains and are demonstrating zero Champagne appreciation.
Here’s my suggested alternative.
Instead, try a smaller-scale Grand Cru Champagne that’s hand-made from a single vineyard — which is far more distinctive, usually at less than half the price. You’ll also be supporting a private, independent grower. So many are marvelous!
There are dozens of phenomenal Champagnes priced at less than $100 a bottle. Some are much cheaper, scanning at around $30 to $50. Many of these tasty Champagnes are family-run businesses dating back more than a century. Each bottle in the vineyard is stored away and hand-turned. Grapevines are decades old and cultivated with great care. Each and every bottle is different.
A few weeks ago, I tasted the very best bottle of Champagne in my life. I’d like to share this moment of pure bliss. My epiphany took place at a special tasting consisting here in Las Vegas consisting of eight Grand Cru Champagnes. All of them were absolutely wonderful. This one particular vintage was off the charts.
Pertois Moriset Camille is a golden, honey-sweet single vintage Blanc de Blanc Champagne made with 100 percent Grand Cru Chardonnay grapes. It’s from a small scale vineyard with a limited production of only about 5,000 bottles annually. Five thousand bottles. Not five million. Now, that’s what I call — exclusive.
Regarding the taste, this is a slightly darker, richer, fuller body than we’re customarily used to experiencing with most Champagne. One can even taste the yeast in the bubbly. You can almost chew it. It’s fabulous. Breathtaking for the money and a steal of a buy.
Price: $62 per bottle.
I can’t stress enough how much better, how much more interesting, how much more enjoyable a tasting experience the Pertois Moriset Camille was versus the more popular Dom Perignon and Kristal, which were 3-times and 4-times the price of the smaller, more exclusive production. To me, the Pertois Moriset Camille — hand grown, produced by a family, made individually, and far rarer — should command the $200 per bottle price. The Dom and Kristal should be $50 a pop. Our perceptions of Champagne are upside down and inside out, turned on its collective ass by mass marketers and pop culture.
One more reason to buy the smaller production labels: Most of these vineyards are co-ops. They grow their own grapes and share the facilities of production. Meanwhile, Dom and Kristal are multi-national corporations. You tell me which bottle likely has more character.
So, here’s my final plea: Stop ordering the Dom and Kristal. Next time you want to celebrate a special occasion or have to pay for the big wedding, go the far more creative route. Superior taste and great stories rest within frosty bottles from Pertois Moriset Camille and all the small independent producers of Champagne. And please — pour me a glass!
Stuck behind the wheel navigating a quilted labyrinth of arterial side streets, blasting through intersections both vehicular and interpersonal, being required to perform a menial task within a wonderland of disparate anonymity stoked fires thought extinguished long ago. Memories of my affection, fuzzy and faded, came back into focus.
My old flame Las Vegas became reignited.
Some time ago, I can’t recall when, I lost consciousness of why exactly I moved to Las Vegas. When exposed to her charms from afar, the corsetted city in a cavalcade of colors was that mysterious, alluring, unattainable, and even forbidden temptation — the pretty girl from high school you couldn’t get, gradually morphing into a compulsive, all-consuming obsession. An obsession, because I couldn’t have it, and yes, we do obsess over what we can’t have.
But then, once we get it, the obsession dissipates or the obsession transforms into something else. It’s that way with food and wine. It’s that way with sex. It’s that way with material possessions. It’s that way with just about everything in our lives — even the cities where we live. Once the forbidden fruit gets tasted over and over, when those sizzling dice inevitably crashed into the rail of reality and seven-out, old temptations become tedious and tiresome. All seductresses age. And, we evolve. We acquire new tastes. Perceptions are transient. All dreams are momentary and fleeting.
Years ago before I moved to Las Vegas, I had a conversation with Ed Hill that I’ll never forget. Ed Hill, who has no idea how meaningful that 5-minute discussion was that happened 20 years ago, has been an advantage player his entire life. Never worked a day, except for gambling, which of course is the toughest job anyone can ever have. Before taking the plunge, back when I was thinking of moving to Las Vegas, Ed Hill was bitching to me about — you guessed it — living in Las Vegas.
“I just want to get the fuck out of here,” Ed Hill snapped.
I looked at him like he was from outer space. I thought Ed Hill was crazy. The man never worked. He lived in a nice house that was totally paid for. He led a dream life. And yet, he wanted to get the fuck out of Dodge. Well, by February 2019 — I’d turned into Ed Hill.
Sequestered into a cushy car seat bombarded constantly with imagery of casinos I no longer look at nor see, and the scent of foods I try to ignore, alternating situational interruptions invade my space. Windows rolled down with cool 65-degree breezes whisking through the cozy Nissan’s interior, I’m reminded again and again with each conversation that floods of people come to this peculiar place with no natural reason whatsoever to exist — to live, to work, to play, to escape, to enjoy, to explore, to reinvent themselves, to temp fate — indeed, they come here from all over the world.
According to my Google search, there are 559 cities on earth with a million persons or more. Las Vegas is but one of 559. I’ll bet my last borrowed dollar that most of us can’t name anywhere close to half of those mega-cities, but just about every literate adult with a television set or an internet connection on any continent or remote island or iceberg or canoe has heard of and thus has some concept of Las Vegas. Over the course of their lives, some long and others bittersweet, many will eventually make it here to Las Vegas to discover for themselves if reality matches the illusion.
For some, it does.
For others, it doesn’t.
What follows are my Days 21 through 28 delivering doses of reality while getting hooked on my own supply.
Day 22 (Mar. 11) — If all the world is a stage, and all the men and women merely players with their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts, then driving for Lyft presents the ultimate opportunity to star on a pauper’s Broadway.
“Where are you from?
“How long have you lived in Las Vegas?”
“Why did you move here?”
“How long have you been driving for Lyft?”
In no particular order, often in scattershot repetition, those are the top four questions I get asked during every ride. Sometimes I get asked all four questions on the same trip.
Riders are just trying to make casual conversation. Trying to be friendly, attempting to fill an awkward, empty silence with feigned curiosity. In Las Vegas — “Where are you from?” is the typical cocktail party banter. Other places, it’s “What do you do for a living” — especially among circles of men. But in Las Vegas, since most people come from someplace else, the quickest moniker of identity stems geography, with all its inherent stereotypes.
Strangers asking questions isn’t so much born from sincere curiosity as a launching platform. People really want to talk about themselves. They desire to share their problems. Admittedly, my patience with this quickly wears thin. Hey, I’ve got my own problems. I don’t bore you with my shit. So, get your weight off my shoulders. You think you got issues? Hell, I’m driving for Lyft.
I’m no amateur therapist. I’d rather sit in silence and vegetate with my own thoughts than engage in small talk. In fact, I love silence. Why move air with your mouth and make sound waves when just about everything sputtered will totally be erased from memory just seconds later? That’s small talk. And, I hate small talk.
Here’s the problem. I’m presently engaged in the quintessential occupation which demands small talk. Driving and being stuck with people. Strangers. It’s like being vegetarian and working in a slaughterhouse. I just wasn’t born for these times. I sure wasn’t born to be a Lyft driver.
Well, after complying with their expectations and dishing out the same stale true story so many times I wanted to stick my face out the window and vomit, I’m now ready to play an entirely new role, only with a zesty and albeit risky twist.
And so for this and many reasons, I began experimenting with playing alternative people and parts. Different personalities. Hey, why not? The masquerade of being someone totally different on each and every ride became an amusing game for me created to pass the time, just harmless self-amusement. It also became increasingly fun and even dangerous thing to do, playing a different role to entertain and even challenge myself, so as to not go crazy stupid parroting the same leftovers to one ten-minute stranger after another.
Most everyone who reads my stuff already knows parts of my bio and that won’t be retold here. It’s the official talking point I stuck to during the opening act week one of driving. But after regurgitating knee-jerk replies, I figure it might be a lot more fun to morph into the Man of a Thousand Faces and Voices.
“Where are you from? New Orleans! Dallas! Las Vegas! Illinois! Maryland! Belfast!
“How long have you lived in Las Vegas?” All my life! I just got here two months ago! I moved here after Katrina. When I was a kid.
“Why did you move here?” I decided to retire! I got offered a new job! I got tired of the hurricanes. I got offered a new job. The Irish potato famine.
“How long have you been driving for Lyft?” Two months! Six months! Two years! Way too long!
Was this charade dishonest? Perhaps. But it’s not like anyone’s checking my credit report or hooking me up to a lie detector test. This isn’t exactly Grand Jury testimony. While driving, I can play any role I want. It’s like standing in front of that mirror when you’re a lonely kid pretending to be Batman for five minutes. And I did my Batman impression more out of self-preservation than anything else.
If forced to sit here and play the uncompensated nightly role as “Max the Las Vegas Entertainer” (by the way, I changed my Lyft Driver name to “Max,” in homage to Mr. Shapiro) then…..here’s my mantra: THEY. ARE. GOING. TO. GET. THEIR. SHOW.
Naturally, I had to be clever and careful. Each answer had to be artfully polished, crafted to fit in some narrative that might establish rapport with the rider so as to extract the biggest possible tip. But this wasn’t about money, really. Don’t wince. Save the self righteousness, please. Poker players do these sorts of acts all the time. So do salespeople. So do politicians. It’s called empathy. It’s all part of the bluff. It’s part of life and the stage we work and live on daily.
See, the goal was to connect, even though I’m not particularly interested in making any real connections. If someone gets in the car and they’re from Philadelphia, well then, I can be “Max from Washington, D.C.” Because they will probably commensurate with this persona and we can spend the next few minutes arguing about the Eagles versus Redskins or bitching about the traffic on I-95. But if a couple of good ole’ boys from Georgia roll into the back seat, then I don’t want to be from anywhere near The District, because everyone hates people from Washington, even Washingtonians hate each other, and because they figure you’re part of the swamp and so instead I tell them, “Metairie!” Or “Mandeville!”
“Yeah, I went to LSU but dropped out. Hey, you sure kicked our asses! Georgia — now that’s a football program!”
That tasty chestnut shelled in bullshit is smoked bacon rolled in pecans to most male Southerners, utterly obsessed with anything to do with college football. Get them talking about the SEC and that kills ten minutes and then presto! — I don’t have to say another word the rest of the trip while they bitch about Alabama and Clemson. Then, I can daydream about what I’m going to say in my next blog. Win-win.
“You’re from Chicago? Wow, what a coincidence! I grew up in Aurora!”
Okay, that’s kinda’ true. I lived in the Chicago suburbs for like a year when I was two when my dad was an Air Traffic Controller at O’Hare. The important thing is to establish a rapport, make a connection, and needlepoint the tip like Betsy Ross plugging the red, white, and blue.
My most creative “act,” which was a riot to pull off, was playing an immigrant from Belfast, North Ireland. Since I’ve heard just about every interview ever conducted with singer Van Morrison, I’ve somehow managed to craft a fairly convincing Northern Irish Belfast accent, which sounds kinda’ like a gruff Liam Niessen only with severe nasal congestion after slamming four shots of Jameson. I figure there’s no way in the fuckery of Ulster to get called down on my Belfast accent by any American. I sure as shit wouldn’t try this with an Irish tourist, however.
“I’m Irish, came to Boston, and landed in Las Vegas. Lucky me!”
That ditty came in particularly handy during St. Patrick’s weekend.
Doing my Shakespeare in the Parking Lot landed me in trouble just once….and it was embarrassing as hell. A 30ish woman got in the car and started bitching about her kids. That got old fast.
“Do you have children?” she blurted out.
Before I could fully think my answer through fully, I retorted with words which seemed to have a life of their own, which I could not control. “Yeah, two kids.”
“How old are they?”
“Umm……six and nine.” Don’t ask me why I invented those numbers.
“Where do they go to school?” Oh shit, I don’t know any of the local schools here. Now, I’m really fucked.
“Ahh, uhh………(seconds pass)……..Woodrow Wilson, I think.” I figure most cities have a school named Woodrow Wilson, right? Isn’t there a Woodrow Wilson Elementary here somewhere?
Next ,there was a prolonged pause.
“We don’t have a Woodrow Wilson Elementary anywhere in Las Vegas. I work for the district. You don’t know where your kids go to school?”
Caught in my dumb lie, I mumbled something else thoroughly unconvincing, abandoning the very first commandment of bullshitting that when you’re stuck in a hole — stop digging. She didn’t speak to me the rest of the way and the next eight minutes of dead air stank of uncomfortable silence. She frowned as she exited and I didn’t get a tip. So, I guess she caught on. Call this my Ishtar moment in performance art. Gee, I should have pretended to be from Belfast. She might have swallowed that line of bullshit.
Daily Tally: 16 rides = $130.30
Day 23 (Mar. 12) — I expected to run into lots more gamblers. But I didn’t run into gamblers. During this driver-journalist immersion-experiment, the subject of gambling came up no more than a few times in hundreds of rides. A couple of guys asked me about scores when their smartphones were dead, or they made passing comments about a point spread. But almost no one spoke about any form of gambling. They talked about everything else, except gambling, in fact. Honestly, that was a shocker. For a city that’s purportedly built on gambling, it’s odd gambling came up so infrequently.
Awareness that people don’t come to Las Vegas anymore to gamble anymore became increasingly obvious. They can gamble back at home, since 40 states now have casinos. If gambling is part of the plan, then they sure don’t talk much about it. While this is admittedly an unscientific summation, when combined with plenty of other evidence, non-gambling tourists comes as both a revelation and a warning. The Las Vegas gambling scene is in serious trouble. I wish I could bet the “don’t.”
An exception was a rider who I picked up at about 8 pm on this busier-than-expected Tuesday night. A young man, late 20s, got into the car. Immediately, I sensed he was pissed. He’d just busted out of the daily $70 poker tournament at the Rio. Seriously. Seventy bucks.
“Shit! I really needed the money. Dumbass called me with Ace-Five and caught an Ace on the river. Fuck!”
Oh man, Da Nang flashbacks recurring again. PTSD — which for me stands for Poker Traumatic Stress Disorder. But now, I’m hearing bad beat stories inside the Lyft car. I don’t know whether to laugh or scream.
This bad beat bullshit goes on way too long.
“Played four fucking hours and was two away from the money. Got dealt pocket Jacks cracked by some old fool with an Ace.”
Please. Please. Don’t let this guy recognize me. I want nothing to do with this. If I could pull off an Arabian impression, I would have attempted it. The poker player rambles on about his bad luck for the next 15 minutes which seemed much longer, of course, because that’s how it works with bad beat stories and we hit every goddamned traffic light between Tropicana and Centennial.
Now, what I’m about to tell you is 100 percent true: Inexplicably, this passenger needed to raise his rent money and was counting on cashing in a poker tournament, a tournament mind you, with 20-minute rounds. This would have been funny if it weren’t so pathetic.
Maybe this Lyft-driving gig is just as hopeless. Raising rent money driving for Lyft? Fuck it, what time’s the next Rio poker tourney?
Daily Tally: 15 rides = $184.04
Day 24 (Mar. 13) — Sometime around 9 at night, I get another ride. It’s a pick up from the arts magnet school, near downtown. For gifted kids. A young girl, perhaps 15 or 16, scoots into the back seat.
This ride is longer than expected — about 12 miles to Sunrise Mountain, in far east Las Vegas.
The girl has her smartphone in her hand and plays a video to herself much of the ride which includes the classic rock song, “Heartbreaker,” originally sung by Pat Benatar. She plays the song three or four times. The singer doing the Pat Benatar cover is outstanding. I mean, she’s really good. I can’t see her since she’s in the back seat and it’s dark. But this doesn’t stop me. One does become attuned to the skill of eavesdropping.
From what I can deduce in this limited time together, the song was performed earlier that night at the arts center and she was revisiting the show.
“That sounds great! Did you attend the show, tonight?” I ask.
“Yes — that’s me. I got to sing ‘Heartbreaker’ for my school.”
Damn. She nailed it. Moments later, the girl’s phone rang. She answered. Paraphrasing their one-sided discussion:
“Oh Mom, you should have been there! You should have been there! It was great! It was unbelievable!”
I couldn’t help but listen in. The voice on the opposite end of the phone wasn’t audible, but the conversation made it clear to me the girl’s mother was forced to work tonight and could not attend. She couldn’t attend her daughter’s performance. And the girl was, well, awesome.
“Oh, I wish you could have been there! You would have loved it! It was amazing! Oh, I wish you could have been there.”
She repeated that line several times. During the short conversation, there was never a reference to any father, nor any other family figure. Just a young girl, and her Mom. But Mom, like a lot of Moms in Las Vegas, had to work. She missed the show.
I’m still haunted by that conversation. Parents out there by the hundreds and thousands missing key junctions their children’s lives. Probably a struggling mother through no fault of her own trying desperately to survive and doing her best to raise a teenager, which is not an easy thing to do in Las Vegas, especially in 2019. Forced to work the night shift. Maybe a second job. And missing life.
Past Pecos, we pull into the broken down parking lot of a worn down, dark building with peeling paint chips. It was an apartment complex with puddles in the pavement and kids playing outside, way too late at night, schooled by neglect and probably destined for trouble. Her ride was completed.
The car back door opened.
“Excuse me,” I mustered up enough fortitude to say. “You are REALLY good. Stick with it. Work hard. You have talent. And from what I could hear, yeah — you were awesome.”
“Thank you, Sir. Goodnight.”
A real Heartbreaker.
Daily Tally: 16 rides = $144.41
Day 25 (Mar. 14) — An earlier than usual start to my day includes a rare accompaniment with the lovely Marieta who sits in the front seat as my passenger, navigator, and co-pilot. This is totally against Lyft’s policy. But fuck it. It’s my lease. It’s my time. It’s my ride. It’s my space. And as an “independent contractor,” which is what I’m called in the eyes of this cutthroat company, I’m doing things my way. They want to pay me a decent wage with benefits and make me their employee, okay, then I’ll follow the rules. But this is my fucking turf.
We run a few personal errands and end up in Centennial. Then, a call comes in for a pick-up. A stylish woman, mid-30’s, gets in the back seat. She’s holding a small white dog, a Maltese. Cute dog. The dog riding in the car, not a service animal, represents the second company rule I’m violating. Two violations on the same ride. Now, that’s impressive. Hey, when you’re an outlaw, might as well go for broke. Why rob a 7-11? Let’s stick up a bank.
I like dogs. So, I’m letting the pet ride. Remember — my rules. Well, the dog is a sweetheart, but Marieta and I learn quickly this ride is going to pose a challenge. The rider is picked up at 4:31 pm. She informs that she MUST be at an office in Henderson by the close of business — which is 5:00 pm. That means I have precisely 29 minutes to make it through rush-hour midday traffic, with a major highway under construction, over a distance that clocks in at 22 miles. According to my GPS, the estimated time of arrival is 5:11 pm. There is no way I can complete this trip within the time frame. Mario Andretti couldn’t drive this route by closing time.
But I like challenges. I love to tackle the impossible. So, let’s fucking roll!
“Can you make it? This is an emergency. I have to get there before 5!”
Sure Lady, no problem. Got a helicopter and a machine gun?
Of course, I didn’t really say that. But she wants me to drive 22 miles in 29 minutes which is supposed to take 40 minutes on the normal drive. It’s impossible.
Incredibly, everything goes perfectly for the first 12 miles. Like clockwork. Like Moses doing that Red Sea thing. Every lane opens. Every light turns green at the right moment. We drive 80 mph in the HOV lane and get all the way to Downtown Las Vegas. Another ten miles to go and I still have a window of like 13 minutes. Man, I love this smell of napalm, I really do love it so. Then, straight ahead past the downtown exits heading south towards Henderson, out of nowhere…..fucking WHAM!
We hit dead-stop traffic which means I-95 has morphed from a racetrack into a parking lot. The dream is over. We won’t make it. Sorry, Lady.
The woman with the dog is none too happy about this. Now, I’m thinking — what to do? Drive on?
“If you want me to try the side streets, I will. But there’s no way to make this by 5 pm. You have to understand that.”
The woman can’t conceive of this problem she created by not planning accordingly and then abruptly instructs me to make a U-turn.
“Okay, then just take me to my juice place.”
Huh? Excuse me? Did she say “Jews place?”
“Take me to my juice place. I want to get a juice.”
With Marieta silent and not wanting to poke the bear, the woman commands me to drive ten miles due north to a nondescript strip mall, where there’s some Jumba Juice store. The woman gets out, while we babysit the dog, lapping in the back seat with nothing to drink the last 45 minutes. Then, she returns to the car with a large juice, and it’s now time to drive another eight miles back to her apartment.
By this time, I can’t get rid of this passenger fast enough, but the fare ends up being fantastic financially — close to $30, which is the biggest fare of my entire 400+ passenger hauling experience. Of course, she’s a stiff. No tip. I might have tried one of my stories with her, but that wouldn’t have worked, and besides, Marieta might have completely lost it.
Daily Tally: 16 rides = $198.46
Day 26 (Mar. 15) — Until tonight, I’d never heard of an “escape room.” Don’t laugh. I still have much to learn.
Four twentysomethings cram into the car — the max ridership not counting dogs, of course. I’m instructed to drive to a run down warehouse nestled off Industrial, near what used to be called Naked City before some rich developers carved it up, gentrified it, and re-branded the area “the Arts District.” It’s 11:30 at night.
Umm, where are you headed? I think everything around here is closed.
“We’re going to an escape room!” Next, there’s giggling.
The four of them smell like dope. Skunk weed.
Not wanting to show my ignorance and give away the fact I have no fucking idea what they’re talking about, I drive to some lot littered with broken glass with no cars in it and buildings covered with plywooded windows and barbed-wire chain link fences.
Um, are you sure you have the correct address?
“Yep, this is it! This is the escape room!”
I’m figuring this must be a sex thing, a swingers club, some S&M joint. That’s it. Yep. That’s what an escape room means. All this is running through my sick confused mind.
One guy gets out and while everyone else stays in the car waiting. He can’t find the entrance.
Suddenly, a faint light bulb turns on and a side door to a warehouse opens. The four of them start giggling again and stream for the entrance. I don’t know whether to hang around and be a good Samaritan if this situation goes South quickly, or hit the gas and get the fuck out of here. The four dopers step inside the building and the door closes and the light bulb goes dark.
I blast the gas.
Three minutes later, I Google “ESCAPE ROOM” and learn what this actually means. Here you go, old people: LAS VEGAS ESCAPE ROOMS
Daily Tally: 13 rides = $135.63
Day 27 (Mar. 16) — Until this Saturday night, my Lyft driving experiences had been completely impervious to any danger. Perhaps naively so. Maybe I was just lucky.
I’d driven in every part of the city. Knowingly picked up pimps, prostitutes, and drug dealers. Never an incident. Not once a problem.
That would change in a frightening way late on what was to be my second to last day of driving.
At 3:15 am on my way home for the night, I received a notification to pick up at PT’s, a locals’ bar near the Rainbow and Charleston intersection. This appeared to be a typical ride for this time of night. Someone likely had too much to drink and did the responsible thing by calling for a Lyft car.
As I pull up, I’m met outside in the parking lot by a muscular man who looks to be in his early 30’s. He’s yelling vulgarities at another man standing at the front door. Then, another man runs inside the bar. This all happens way too quickly.
After many hours driving out on the streets, I wasn’t paying attention to the argument. My task is simple — pick up the rider and get him on his way, arriving home safely.
The muscular man gets in and takes the front seat next to me. This happens in perhaps one in ten rides. I don’t really like front-seat passengers because it usually means I have to talk to them, and it just seems a little more intimate than something I want at 3:15 am with a complete stranger.
As we pull onto Rainbow, I look over and see his hand is bloody. The man announces he’s been in a bar fight and wants to leave for home.
The Lyft app automatically maps out each rider’s destination and I see the inebriated man who’d just been involved in a bloody brawl will be traveling to the far side of northeast Las Vegas, some 20 miles away. This means I’ll be spending far more time inside the car with this man than I wanted to. I’d wrongly presumed he was probably a neighborhood local and just needed a quick lift home, perhaps only a few miles. But I was going to haul him to the opposite side of town and be stuck with a drunk and apparently dangerous man in the seat right next to me.
I don’t like this ride. I don’t need this job. I don’t want this risk. But I’m stuck.
Some small talk was attempted, him mostly talking, and me nodding along with the occasional verbal affirmation. The longer he talked the more he worked himself into a lather. The man became increasingly upset. He made a number of derogatory comments about Mexicans and told a story that he’d been thrown out of the Social Security Office for fighting that same day. This wasn’t a story I wanted to hear. Not at 3:15 am.
“Every fucking Mexican in there was getting free money from the government and I couldn’t even get a goddamned Social Security card that I lost because I didn’t show a birth certificate,” was the gist of man’s complaint.
He rambled on about Mexicans and then brought up his combat experience. “I was five years in the Army fighting and did two whole tours,” he said. “And I can’t even get my fucking Social Security card?”
Well, I decided then and there this wasn’t the time to let him know I’d voted for Bernie Sanders. I wan’t exactly keen on arguing him about sanctuary cities. I’m brave. But I’m not stupid. This isn’t the time nor the place nor the guy with whom to argue politics. Whatever steam this pressure cooker of a disturbed man wanted to blow off, I’d sit there, staring straight ahead, holding the wheel, bite my lip, and say absolutely nothing. Dude already had been in two fights that day and I didn’t want to end up as the third leg of his angry trifecta.
About 15 minutes into the ride, there’s an astonishing development.
“Where the fuck are you driving?”
What? I’m going to….[whatever the address written on the GPS says].
“No! That’s wrong! That’s my old address! I live…..[some address in the opposite direction].”
The man, angry and obviously inebriated, had tapped the wrong destination on the app. So, I’d blown 15 minutes driving in the wrong direction, and the man finally came to his senses and realized something was wrong.
Again, this wasn’t the fare to dispute or argue about. Just get this guy home, close the door, and be done. I don’t even give a fuck about eating the ride at this point. Just let it be over.
For the next 15 minutes, the disturbed immigrant-hating vet rants about everything on his mind. This is the longest ride of the Lyft ordeal, made much worse by sitting within inches of the uncertainty, a sort of village next to Mount Vesuvius. There was not telling if and when it might blow.
The ride ends sometime after 4 am. It’s a sigh of relief to see the disturbed individual out of the car and stumbling towards his front door.
This incident still bothers me. I wish there was something I could have said or done to help him. But one can’t do therapy from the seat of a car at 4 am. It was clear this man was in serious pain and had severe troubles. But rather than judge him, I felt sorry for him He’d clearly fallen through the cracks. He was an emotional casualty due to lots of circumstances, perhaps some beyond his control. Immigrants and hate and drinking and bar fights had become foils of frustration.
I hope that man can get some help. I really do.
Daily Tally: 18 rides = $231.33
Day 28 (Mar. 17) — It’s Sunday — my final day. My contract is over. A week loaded with drama ends with not a bang, but a whimper. Nothing interesting happens. Nothing at all. Gee, I wish every day of driving could have been like this.
For the past month, abnormal became normal and when that day finally came when nothing dramatic happened, that was the outlier. My night became my day. Normal is unusual.
I’m finished as a Lyft driver. Done with it.
Daily Tally: 13 rides = $112.22
POSTSCRIPT: I return the leased Nissan Altima to the Hertz rental center, located near the Airport. On my way back home, needing a ride, naturally — I call for Lyft.
An older man in a mini-van picks me up and begins driving. Two minutes into the ride, it happens:
“So, where are you from?” the driver asks.
Purgatory has no escape.
“Belfast,” I answer — in the most obvious American accent imaginable.
“Belfast? Where’s that? Ohio?
“Yeah — Belfast, Ohio,” I say.
Later on, I learn there actually is a Belfast, Ohio. This time, I got lucky.
WEEK 4 RESULTS:
Total 56 hours driven and 117 rides given….$837.94 in earnings including tips and bonus after $274 rental car cost deduction…..minus $149 spent in gas….equals $12.11 per hour.
Note: Thanks to everyone for the positive feedback posted on social media. In a follow-up article, I’ll post my final thoughts, which will include my recommendations for both drivers and riders.
Last night at 11:15 pm, we lost our beloved cat Alex. He was 18 years old.
Alex died in our arms. He was surrounded by love. As he gasped his dying last breaths, we called out his name softly, over and over, “Alex, good boy….Alex, such a good, good boy.”
He looked up at us with those gorgeous green eyes, never peering away from his gaze. He tried to answer with a few faint “meows,” just as he’d always responded each time his name was called. But last night, he lacked the strength. He had no more meows left to give. He died restfully in peace.
It was heartbreaking. It was beautiful.
Alex was adopted from an animal shelter in Washington, D.C. Marieta and I took him into our loving home exactly one month after the tragedy that was 9/11. Over the next 18 years, Alex traveled the country with us, more like a dog than a cat. He visited a dozen states. We took him to the Grand Canyon. He stayed with us in Reno. Whenever and whenever possible, we took Alex with us because he was a part of our family.
Alex was amazing. We trained him to walk on a leash. He loved to ride in the car. Every Christmas Eve, we took Alex with us to look at the Christmas lights. Every visit to PetsMart, we took Alex along on his leash. All the dog lovers couldn’t believe how smart and sophisticated Alex was, walking inside a store.
Everyone thinks their pet is special. But Alex was truly special.
Many of you might remember Alex. Some of you came into our home and fed him when we traveled. Others may recall Alex as the only cat in Las Vegas history who actually played a hand of live poker.
In 2003, while still working at Binion’s Horseshoe, I brought Alex who stayed upstairs in the hotel. Not a cat to be couped up, Alex wanted to get out and be part of the action. So, I brought him downstairs. Alex joined a poker game and laid upon the table as the cards were dealt and the chips flew. He was dealt in a few hands and even won a few pots. Admittedly, Alex did violate the “one player to a hand” rule. Not surprising, since Alex was always looking for the angle.
Alex’s short poker career wasn’t without a bit of controversy. Gavin Smith was sitting in that game. Gavin insisted the cat “played,” meaning he was part of an all-in bet. Gavin won the pot, and my cat. So, Gavin — a devoted animal lover — cradled Alex in his arms for the next hour while playing No-Limit Hold’em. Gavin and Alex both lived for another 14 years. They died just a few months apart.
Alex loved to play with his cat toys. He loved walks. He loved riding in the car. But most of all, Alex loved to sleep and eat. He could sleep 16 hours a day and he ate like a pit bull.
We will never forget Alex nor be able to express the tremendous joy he gave us. I am so grateful he passed away in peace and was surrounded by our love.
Losing family and friends is to be expected, as death is a part of life. But that doesn’t make things easy with the inevitable happens. Alex was a part of the family. Alex was a friend.
I cry these tears now, not in pain, but in joy, grateful for the gift that was Alex.
Alex was a good boy. Alex was such a good, good boy.
Last Sunday afternoon at 2 pm, the Windmill Library in Las Vegas offered a free musical performance and verbal retrospective in remembrance of Liberace, the late flamboyant showman-pianist, who died 32 years ago.
I suspect most of us who attended expected perhaps only a few dozen locals might show up. After all, Liberace disappeared from the Las Vegas stage a very long time ago. An outdated museum dedicated to his life shuttered in 2010. So, I wondered with some justification — who remembers Liberace?
Remarkably, “Liberace Lives!” — a celebration of the master showman’s life and music — attracted more than 500 attendees! About 50 people or so had to be turned away at the door at the performance center. Come to learn, an identical performance held at another library during the previous day also drew a packed house and an overflow crowd.
What magic spell is still cast by this campy entertainer who never sang, didn’t compose any significant music, couldn’t dance, never used a light show or had an orchestra and whose entire stage show pretty much consisted of a pudgy aging man with a bouffant hair dew dressed in some absurd costume straight out of the Renaissance while sitting at a piano for what would seem to be an excruciating 90 minutes?
That’s the great mystery I shall attempt to solve in today’s article.
Indeed, the timing is perfect. Today, Liberace would have been 100-years-old. He was born Wladziu Valentino Liberace in West Allis, WI on May 16, 1919. The son of Polish and Italian immigrants, Liberace was known as “Lee” to his friends, and “Walter” to his family. But later, the performer became better known to millions by the singular name, Liberace, the first American entertainer to establish a popular trend later copied by Madonna, Prince, Pink, and countless icons.
The remembrance held at the library taught me many remarkable things about Liberace. So, I thought I’d share them now with you. Here are a dozen facts you probably didn’t know about Liberace:
 During the mid-1950s, Liberace was the highest-paid entertainer in the United States, and perhaps the entire world. He had a successful nationally-television variety show. He also earned a whopping $50,000 a week at the Riviera for one Las Vegas’ first extended residencies. That’s equal to about a million dollars per month in today’s money.
 A decade later, Liberace moved his act over to the more spacious The International showroom (later the Las Vegas Hilton, now the Westgate). Every one of his shows sold out. For a time, his opening act was a young female singer named Barbra Streisand.
 Liberace was vilified by critics for his piano playing style and unapologetic showmanship. He was often accused of being way too glitzy with little musical substance. Critics noted that he didn’t compose any original music. Liberace’s counterargument was he brought classical music and old American standards to millions of new listeners. He’s often credited with demystifying the greatest classical compositions for much broader audiences. He was one of the first stage performers to completely obliterate siloed musical tastes. In fact, Liberace included nearly every genre of music in his Las Vegas stage show.
 Liberace had hundreds of fan clubs throughout the world, 200 at one point during the height of his popularity. Later in his career, his most loyal fans consisted of older women, with whom he had established the oddest of connections.
 Liberace stories are the stuff of legend. While rehearsing one afternoon for his temporary residency at The New Frontier around 1953, an unknown man observed the virtuoso from the wings offstage. Liberace wasn’t at all pleased with the lighting and asked the tall man to help with repositioning a few spotlights. The man silently complied with the pianist’s request. That man turned out to be Howard Hughes.
 Before morphing into a legend, Elvis Presley was mostly known as a teen idol during the 1950s. While playing a few shows in Las Vegas, during one night off Elvis attended Liberace’s performance at the Riviera. He saw the pianist wearing a glittery jacket that was so flashy it completely dominated the showroom. Elvis was so impressed with the spectacle that he too began wearing sequined jackets in his act and later adopted the flashy jumpsuits that Liberace pioneered as a Las Vegas performer, years earlier.
 Liberace’s stage show became increasingly over the top nearly to the point of self-parody and camp. He overtly displayed his wealth, fawned over royalty and other celebrities, and even wore heavy fur coats while onstage, despite the bright lights and oppressive Las Vegas heat. He drove into the showroom while chauffered in the back of a mirrored Rolls Royce (driven by his live-in lover, the boyish Scott Thorson). Liberace doddered across the stage adorned in a full white mink stole with a tail more than 20 feet long. As he paraded near the front row of worshippers, Liberace’s stock stage line was “go ahead, have a feel, there’s enough fur there for all of you.”
 Liberace is credited with the famous line, “I laughed all the way to the bank.” When critics ripped his act and he was asked for a reaction, Liberace frequently slung the revengeful reply. Later, during an appearance on The Tonight Show in an interview with Johnny Carson, Liberace really stuck it to his critics. He snapped: “I don’t cry all the way to the bank anymore – I bought the bank!”
 Liberace won a multi-billion dollar defamation suit against a British tabloid after the magazine claimed the pianist was gay in the 50s. Incredibly, Liberace denied the claim and ultimately won his lawsuit, despite the obvious fact the allegation was true. While Liberace couldn’t “come out” given the restrictive times and repressive norms of the day, and certainly would never have enjoyed vast success had his homosexuality been widely known, his adoring fans never seemed to care. Nonetheless, to this day, Liberace remains controversial among gay activists. He never acknowledged being gay, despite actor Rock Hudson being the far braver as the first Hollywood legend to announce his sexuality months prior to dying of AIDS. Liberace died in a similar vein, 18 months after Hudson, but still denied being gay until his last dying breath.
 In life and even in death, Liberace was the ultimate contradiction. He was a flamboyant showman, who lived just as extravagantly while offstage. Yet, he was devoutly religious and remained a practicing Catholic throughout his entire life. Liberace was very conservative politically.
 After Liberace’s death, his wealth funded thousands of college scholarships for students interested in pursuing careers in music. His estate bestowed millions, much of the money going to students in the performing arts at UNLV. His generous endowment continues to support students and musical programs.
 Liberace’s stage shows often concluded with the most unusual fanfare possible. He didn’t simply disappear backstage and then leave, as is normal custom. Rather, after performing his final song, he invited his audience up onto the stage to touch his clothes, sit at his grand piano, and even try on his flashy jewelry. He posed for tens of thousands of photos with his fans, often with handshakes, hugs, and kisses.
Liberace remains a Las Vegas legend. He’s a musical icon. He’s well worth remembering today, on the centennial of his birth.
— Then, don’t you ever lecture me again on MORALITY.
— Then, don’t you ever lecture me again on your so-called “CHRISTIAN VALUES.”
— Then, don’t you ever lecture me again on TAKING PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY FOR ACTIONS.
— Then, don’t you ever lecture me again about GOVERNMENT SPENDING or FEDERAL DEFICITS.
— Then, don’t you ever lecture me again on PAYING YOUR OWN BILLS.
— Then, don’t you ever lecture me again on ADHERING TO THE U.S. CONSTITUTION.
— Then, don’t you ever lecture me again on following THE RULE OF LAW.
— Then, don’t you ever lecture me again about CIVILITY.
— Then, don’t you ever lecture me again about CRONYISM, NEPOTISM, or CORRUPTION.
— Then, don’t you ever lecture me again on PROTECTING THE COUNTRY FROM FOREIGN INTERFERENCE.
— Then, don’t you ever lecture me again on anything to do with RUSSIA.
— Then, don’t you ever lecture me again about CARING FOR THE POOR AND THE ELDERLY.
— — Then, don’t you ever lecture me again about RESPECTING FAMILIES OF THE WAR DEAD.
— Then, don’t you ever lecture me again about CARING FOR THE ENVIRONMENT or PROTECTING ANIMALS.
— Then, don’t you ever lecture me again about HONESTY.
— Then, don’t you ever lecture me again about TELLING THE TRUTH.
From your deafening silence, your constant deflection, your incessant what-about-ism, and your self-imposed bubble of blind ignorance, you have made a clear choice, an appalling demonstration of precisely where you stand on all the important issues of the day, and it’s not flattering.
The bottom line is — you will NEVER lecture me again on anything.
Remember his name, because he merits being treasured. Ponder his significance because he enhanced everything to which his name was attached. Revere his memory because he was a mentor to many, who freely gave guidance for no other reason than simply being kind.
If you knew Gary, you were lucky. If you didn’t, then please read on and learn more about this remarkable man I knew, respected, and loved.
He was a father. He was a husband. He was a friend. He was a veteran. He was a patriot. He was a son of the earth.
He wasn’t just a good man. He was a great man. He was a teacher. He was an intellect. He led by example. He was a man who exemplified the very essence of compassion, honesty, and decency. He was the greater good. He was the angel of our better nature.
Gary Edward Thompson was born in Danbury, Connecticut on December 4th, 1945. He died in Las Vegas, Nevada on April 14, 2019. In between, he lived 74 extraordinary years. His life touched countless others. He made a difference.
Gary spent most of his childhood in Connecticut. He graduated from the prestigious New York Military Academy. He enlisted in the United States Air Force. He served overseas during the Cold War and was stationed in Pakistan during a tense period in global geopolitics.
After serving his country proudly abroad, Gary returned home and worked in New York City for several years as a marketing executive. He became a widely-respected Wall Street reporter and was assigned to writing daily copy for the Dow Jones Report.
Gary then moved to Las Vegas and launched a new career. He took a job as a reporter covering city hall and was promoted to managing editor of the Las Vegas Sun. Next, he worked at Harrah’s Entertainment as a publicist. He worked his way to the pinnacle of the casino industry, becoming the spokesperson for Caesar’s Entertainment, the world’s largest gambling enterprise.
Gary also worked as an executive for the World Series of Poker — not because he needed the extra workload, nor the immense responsibilities that went along with an additional full-time job. He worked for the WSOP — and did so from 2004 through 2008, the period now regarded as “the poker boom” — simply because he loved the game and respected its players. He was there during the critical transition between past and present when the WSOP grew from a smoky backroom corral into an internationally-televised spectacle.
That’s how I came to know Gary so well, and where our story now begins.
Thirty-one years ago, two legends-in-the-making battled it out for poker’s richest prize and instant immortality. Johnny Chan beat Erik Seidel heads-up and won the 1988 World Series of Poker. The final hand later became canonized in the popular movie Rounders and to this day remains one of the most famous confrontations in poker history.
Remember the riveting instant when Chan masterfully captured his prey and yet was forced to disguise the victory within his grasp? See the photograph above which shows Chan just moments before winning his second of two world championship titles. Look at the man positioned over Chan’s left shoulder reporting on the event. That’s Gary Thompson.
Yes, that’s Gary Thompson — standing on his feet at crusty old Binion’s Horseshoe, during the pre-historic era when no one from the mainstream press ever came to cover anything related to poker. Reporting on poker events just wasn’t done back then. Not before Gary Thompson arrived in Las Vegas, saw the potential, trekked down to the Horseshoe personally, and made it into a front-page news story. Some two decades after recognizing the magnetic attraction that was the World Series of Poker, he became one who would run it and make major decisions that would come to define what it’s become today.
Sometime in the future, the real story of the WSOP shall be written. What went on behind the scenes. In back hallways and on cell phones late at night. On those pages, should they tell the whole truth, Gary will be tagged as the perpetual outlier, the ultimate voice of reason, the grand visionary, and the player’s champion.
I was there. I saw it. I witnessed everything. I remember.
Poker players who revere the WSOP owe a special debt of gratitude to Gary for all the things he did that almost no one saw. In the face of excruciating pressure, outright opposition, and often indifference from the highest level, he (often alone) was the voice who stood up to the mega-corporation, the short-sighted bottom-liners, the managerial MBAs, and all the suited squeezers who wouldn’t know mixed games from a mixed salad and never gave a rat’s ass about the players or any of poker’s great traditions. Gary was there duking out in the back offices and boardrooms, bickering and bargaining and bantering at every meeting, every step of the way — pleading, cajoling, maneuvering — desperately trying to protect and preserve all that the WSOP represented that corporate culture wanted to milk out and pulverize the last nickel and drop.
He didn’t win every battle. In fact, he lost many. But he argued passionately and always came down on the side of the greater good of the game.
Yet, Gary’s name will never be associated with poker championships, although he was the players champion. He stood up for them. He defended them. He understood those who came to the WSOP each and every year weren’t just ripe customers to be plucked for a day but might be loyalists for life, provided they were treated right and not ripped-off. Among everyone I ever worked with at Binion’s-Harrah’s-Caesars over 20 long years at the WSOP, no one was more protective of the players and traditions than Gary Thompson.
Public relations and marketing basically boil down to mastering the art of bullshitting.
There, I said it.
Maybe it was because Gary waded through so much of it himself, working on Wall Street and recognizing a lie when he heard it. Maybe it was covering the dirty underbelly of Las Vegas politics for so long. Perhaps those experiences had something to do with Gary always despising bullshitters and vowing never to become one himself.
So, when Gary ultimately flipped to the opposite side of the cat and mouse media game, he never distracted, diverted, nor double-talked those who sought his perspective. He never once bullshitted. That’s why every media personality who interviewed Gary knew they were getting the straight story directly from the source. That made Gary the “go to” guy in Las Vegas. Because he returned phone calls. He told the truth.
Most readers have no idea how difficult it is to maintain trust and personal integrity while working for a conglomerate as colossal as Caesars Entertainment, particularly during the tense period when the $27 billion company was inexplicably floundering in bankruptcy. Gary manned the front lines and dealt with the press on a daily basis. He was the company’s firewall.
That didn’t mean things always went smoothly.
About ten years ago, I read an explosive story on the front page of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. The article was about the Department of Justice laying down the hammer on online poker, which pretty much pulled the plug on the game’s growth inside the United States. Gary was quoted (accurately) with a blistering rebuke of the D.O.J.’s overreach. He blasted the feds. I remember sitting there and reading that article, fist-pumping air, and screaming out, “You tell ’em, Gary!”
That was Gary Thompson, ignoring the guard rails, cutting through the bullshit, and telling it like it was. It was pure Gary at his best.
Later, I found out Gary was almost fired for that impromptu comment. Caesar’s Entertainment and the stuffed suits were annoyed that its own spokesperson was picking swinging an ax at the federal government. But Gary survived because he was so damned good at his job and everyone who knew him respected his word as the gold standard. That’s trust. That’s integrity. That’s power.
I must have had 50 dinners and at least 500 drinks with Gary, and that’s a conservative estimate.
His beverage of choice was always Vodka Martini. Shaken not stirred.
He dressed immaculately.
He spoke calmly but could always command a conversation. When Gary spoke, everyone stopped and listened. He had the ear of everyone — CEO’s, Mayors, television people, everyone. Once, I saw him pick up the phone and book a friend of mine as a guest on National Public Radio — on the spot. He got things done.
Most of all, Gary loved to laugh and made the most of every opportunity to do so. If pressed to recall the serene sound of Gary’s soothing voice, it most certainly is accompanied by his laughter. Even when Gary was mad, and he did get angry at times, you could always tell he was looking for the bright side and seeking a way for everyone to shine. His positive spirit was utterly infectious.
I was lucky to call him my boss. He was the kind of person you worked for and didn’t want to disappoint. There are rare individuals in this world who command such authority just by their example, that to fall short of their expectations is the ultimate defeat and despair. Letting down Gary on any task was the ultimate in shame. I don’t know if I ever let down Gary, but I certainly tried to meet and match everything that was expected. I think everyone who ever worked for or with Gary would say the same thing. He was that exceptional leader who could motivate others to exceed their capabilities.
Sometime around 2006, Gary and I had one of our dinners at Piero’s, a local Las Vegas institution. Everyone in the restaurant knew Gary. It was like dining with a rock star. I think (former) Mayor Oscar Goodman was there that night. Gary could have run for any office in the city and probably been elected in a landslide.
During our many conversations, he confessed things privately to me. I don’t think he would mind me sharing some these memories, now. Gary absolutely adored his daughter, Kelly. He talked about her with great love and admiration. He also would get choked up each time he would talk about his late wife, who had died years earlier. Gary carried some guilt about her death, rightly or wrongly burdened with memories that didn’t tell her how much he loved her enough while she was living. He carried that burden long after she was gone. I think Gary lost a piece of himself when she passed away. Gary could be the life of the party without every trying to call attention to himself.
But when Gary met Gina, he became complete once again. They were married and devoted their lives to each other. Gary and Gina were the perfect power couple and even better dinner companions — witty, funny, insightful, and kind. Marieta and I dined out with the Thompson’s many times, including wine dinners. If I were to describe those dinners and our conversations, the word I would use would be passionate. Gary and Gina were always filled with passion. About everything.
Gary and I shared so many common interests and similarities. But our political views were dramatically different. Gary was a libertarian and a Republican. He had bumper stickers of the National Rifle Association on his Acura that I threatened to tear off. We argued about politics all the time. Yet never once did our discussions become heated, nor uncomfortable. I think there was a mutual respect that was so deep it transcended our differences. I wish other people who can’t get along could have spent more time witnessing the way Gary carried himself in daily conversation. There’s a lesson there for everyone.
About six years ago (if memory serves), Gary learned he had terminal cancer. He immediately began treatment and lost his hair. Never one to seek out any sympathy, Gary instead focused on the time he had still remaining. He vowed to make Gina happy. That was all that mattered to him. Gina and his daughter Kelly — they were everything to Gary.
And so, Gary traveled. And played golf. And laughed. Despite the diagnosis, Gary laughed a lot. He never gave up. He never quit smiling and laughing.
I’m a terrible golfer.
Yet somehow, I always got paired with the laughing chain smoker and 70-year-old cancer patient, even when we were senselessly playing for money against much younger and stronger competition.
Talk about a handicap. Thing was, the handicap was me.
Gary tried to give me golf lessons. Many times. That didn’t work. I still sucked. He once trashed my old set of golf clubs right out on the middle of the course and gave me his own brand new set of wood and irons. Seriously, he picked up my bag and tossed it in the trash between holes. Then, he gave me a $500 set of new clubs, which I still have as a prized possession.
Gary’s expensive didn’t help either. It wasn’t the clubs. It was the golfer swinging them.
The only time I ever won money on the golf course was back a few years ago when Gary and I were at Angel Park in Summerlin playing against a couple of guys who could whack the ball 300 yards down the fairway. We were playing “best ball.” That meant each player got to play the ball of the best shot. Of course, we played Gary’s shot 90 percent of the time because I was so awful and he was so consistent.
We got down to the final hole at Angel Park, the 18th green. The purse had a big carryover. I had to sink a 30-yard putt, for us to win the match. It was a shot I couldn’t make 1 out of 500 times. Gary coached me. He told me to exhale and just where to strike the ball and how hard to hit it. I took my club, actually Gary’s putter, and slapped the ball which ran downhill and to the right and dropped straight into the hole. Pluck! We cheered. We hugged. Our opponents threw their clubs up in the air. I felt like I had just won The Masters.
Here are two golf stories I wrote about previously, including an account of that round with Gary.
When Gary was diagnosed with cancer, he knew his days were numbered. For most who are facing their own mortality, seeing the end of the road serves as a rude wake-up call. It’s a cruel reminder to re-align one’s priorities. For Gary, knowing he had a limited time to live wasn’t a jolting life adjustment at all. It was merely a continuation of who he was and always had been. It was a fitting final chapter and an epitaph.
Gary had always wanted to see Africa and experience the final frontiers of the wilderness. So, during the last year of his life, still healthy and with energy enough to make the long and demanding trip, he ventured to the great continent of Africa where he saw the wild beasts up close and marveled in all that was natural. For the man who’d spent much of his life working among the skyscrapers of New York and the neon glow of Las Vegas, standing out on the open plains with African bushmen and being among the animals was his final fateful act of revelation and liberation.
If the life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living, then we all share an obligation to remember him and revere the life he lived and try to meet the lofty aspirations he set by his conduct and the man he was.
I loved Gary Thompson.
I will miss him.
We will all miss him and the greater good he was.
Here is a direct link to the Gary Edward Thompson memorial page and more information about services scheduled for April 27th. CLICK HERE
Note: I believe the facts of Gary’s life to be accurate in this hasty remembrance. I have no notes nor any obituary for reference. It was written from memory. If readers notice any errors, please e-mail me privately at — firstname.lastname@example.org — and I will make any corrections. Thank you.
Buyer Beware: Why Lyft’s Current Business Model is Unsustainable and the Stock is Probably a Losing Long-Term Investment
A few hours from now, the rideshare company Lyft will go public. Shares of stock will be offered on the NASDAQ. A few people are about to become insanely rich overnight.
Lyft began operating in 2012. In the seven years since, the high-tech startup has grown into the second-largest rideshare transport company. Uber, which ranks first, enjoyed a four-year head start on their rival.
However, some analysts now believe Lyft’s long-term prospects are brighter given the number of cities where the company operates (300) and growth projections within those markets. Certainly, Lyft will be an attractive investment for initial speculation in what’s been a booming American economy. The timing of Lyft’s public launch couldn’t be better than now.
However, Lyft is beset with many questions and potential problems. What are my credentials to make this statement? Well, admittedly, I know nothing about the company’s ownership, its management team, its technology, or anything whatsoever to do with its finances. What I do know is its current business model is badly flawed and hence, unsustainable. Lyft can’t continue to operate as it’s now doing and expect to generate much of any profit for investors. In other words, don’t expect dividends to be paid soon. In fact, profits may never come.
We’ve seen this false hype before — high-tech stocks and even great ideas that seemed they couldn’t miss, go from boom to bust. Anyone remember the late 1990s? Apparently not.
Lyft is expected to sell 32.5 million shares at around $72 each in the initial public offering phase (IPO), taking place on Friday, March 30, 2019. The company will instantly be valued at $25 billion, a remarkable degree of investor confidence for such a young company that has yet to produce a profit in any of its seven years of operations, to date.
Read that again — yet to produce a profit.
Sure, Lyft (and Uber) have set the stage for what seems like a transformative enterprise that could change how millions of people get around in urban centers. Most of us have used the service and do find it appealing. The convenience of simply pulling out a smartphone on any city street, typing in an address, and getting a car direct to your doorstep within minutes is an attractive feature. Moreover, ridesharing doesn’t require the handling of cash since all transactions are done by credit card (which is already on file when the consumer signs up for an online account). Finally, ridesharing fares cost significantly less than taxis and other means of private transportation. And therein lies the problem.
Lyft and Uber have been competing in a heated rivalry, especially over the last year or so, which has really been great for riders, but bad for both companies and especially their drivers, which are not employees but independent contractors. The battle to inflate market share has kept fares ridiculously low in some cities, which has resulted in drivers’ pay being cut. Lyft has been able to weather financial losses until now, and the infusion of IPO capital surely will give the company a huge boost. However, there’s simply no way to generate profits in the long-term based on any of the current numbers.
Why not? :et me explain.
Presently, Lyft is losing money. To make a profit, the company must either:
Reduce labor costs
Ramp up technology (which will reduce labor costs)
Sorry, riders — but paying $8.45 for a six-mile ride cannot continue. That fare isn’t feeding all the mouths that need to be fed when it comes to operating a motor vehicle, maintenance, fuel, labor, customer service, management, marketing, insurance, and other associated costs. Making up the current deficit and then generating a profit for shareholders will require implementation of one or more of the options above. There’s a reason the taxi costs $12 while the Lyft ride costs $9. It’s because the trip is somewhere between $9 and $12 in cost, and Lyft is undercutting the competition.
If prices increase to a level that offsets costs and generates profit, ridesharing won’t be nearly as attractive to consumers. Right now, many people are turning to ridesharing because it’s cheaper than a taxi. That won’t be the case if fares go up by a substantial margin, which is probably inevitable given the costs of driving in urban markets.
If labor costs are cut, which means driver’s pay is slashed, rideshare companies won’t be able to attract new talent, nor keep those the drivers they have. Uber and Lyft have been in a war to the bottom to see which company can pay its independent contractors less, presumably in an attempt to make their balance sheets look good. With high turnover, rideshare companies are now bombarding social media channels desperately trying to attract new drivers, even offering so-called incentives to sign up. Check your Facebook feed after visiting the Lyft page sometime and see what pops up.
Ridesharing is still a relatively new phenomenon and many drivers may be fooled into thinking it pays more than what’s actually accrued after time, investment, fuel costs, and wear and tear on personal vehicles — not to mention the inherent risks that go along with working odd hours driving on the streets (crime, traffic tickets, auto accidents, and so forth). As the word spreads that many Lyft drivers make barely above minimum wage, it will be increasingly difficult to find the gullible. Furthermore, the low rate of pay (which based on my personal experience varies between $8-14 per hour, and that’s — before taxes and zero benefits) will inevitably discourage better drivers and attract people of lesser quality. Seriously, who can live in cities like New York, Washington, San Francisco, or Los Angeles on $11-an-hour?
Poverty-level wages, essential to profits, will attract marginal people — both in quality and character. Increasingly, expect to see problems (like Uber sexual assaults, which have risen significantly). There’s simply no way to attract a viable workforce paying $11 an hour with no benefits. It’s a lettuce picking job behind the wheel.
Investors may be attracted to the company’s high-tech prospects, which could be on the horizon. The most revolutionary component of ridesharing of the future is autonomous vehicles. If Lyft (and Uber) can convert cars into a driverless experience, that eliminates significant labor cost. Inner-city transportation would never be the same again.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, just yet. While the technology does exist and the rideshare giants undoubtedly would chomp at the bit to convert to driverless cars if given an option, nevertheless, significant legal and practical objections do remain. How many cities and states will allow hundreds or perhaps thousands of cars to be driverless and how long would this process take? Additionally, what happens when a driverless car kills someone, as happened last year in Phoenix? Accidents are part of the equation and are bound to occur (even if they aren’t caused by technical malfunctions). Will city and state governments allow this controversial new technology on the streets? Perhaps the biggest hurdle of all — what about consumer confidence and traditional habits? Will riders get into a car that doesn’t have a living person as the driver? Sure, high-tech might make driverless cars statistically safer and perhaps these concerns shall be overcome. But I’m not convinced that either Lyft or Uber will be able to convert to a driverless vehicle fleet, not anytime soon. Any investor would be a fool to think this is the game changer that will suddenly make rideshare companies profitable.
Hence, rider fares must increase (jeopardizing profit), labor costs must be reduced (jeopardizing profit), or high-tech must become the lifesaver for Lyft and Uber (probably the only viable option). Then, add the uncertainty of gas prices now at a historic low (when adjusted for inflation), rising automobile acquisition and repair costs, and other economic uncertainties, and it’s impossible to imagine a better climate for ridesharing companies that right now nor how things will improve. If Lyft and Uber can’t make a profit in these extraordinary conditions, how will they make money when the inevitable slowdown or downturn occurs?
This isn’t to say Lyft and Uber are doomed to fail. To the contrary. Ridesharing is here to stay. It’s great for consumers. But it won’t be nearly the bargain later on when operating costs and shareholder expectations create pressure to raise fares. A ride from the airport can’t be delivered at $12 when the actual cost is higher. It’s unsustainable.
No doubt, Lyft is going public at the ideal time for their owners. Uber will likely be following suit, soon. Unfortunately, those who invest in all likelihood have never driven for the company, seen the day-to-day operations, nor done the math. I have.
Those who buy shares in these companies early and then hold rideshare stocks could end up in a riderless investment, with no idea when to bail out. Short-term, Lyft could be an attractive investment. But as reality sets in, no one knows where the profits will come from.
The dangling of carrots can make tigers and bears jump through rings of fire.
Years ago, a survey was done. People were asked to rate their own driving abilities. Around 90 percent of respondents professed to be “better than average” drivers. About 60 percent considered themselves in the top 10 percent.
The only thing proven by the survey was — there’s a shitload of self-deception going on. Everybody thinks they’re Superman. Meanwhile, we’re all convinced that everybody else is an idiot. Well, that last part might actually be true.
Our delusions don’t apply just to an evaluation of driving skills. A similar survey would reveal the same percentages for many things. Ask 100 men to rate themselves as lovers and I suspect the percentages would mirror driving. But the biggest illusion of all is in gambling, especially among poker players and sports bettors. While working in casinos, I met barely anyone who admitted to losing. And it’s always the other guy who plays his hand badly. It’s incredible.
I post this little ditty of a disclaimer up front because, the fact is, while I’m an average poker player and have surely gone through some rough spells in sports betting — I’m a great driver. Trust me on this. Would I lie to you?
Working for Lyft is a job where the primary skill set required is….driving. Not being a great conversationalist. Not being kind and courteous. Not clicking an app. Not fiddling with the radio. Not writing crusty blog reflections of what it’s like to be a rideshare driver.
Day 15 (Mar. 4) — Previously in this series, I eviscerated Las Vegas cab drivers. Long before I began this whimsical experiment, my opinion was that cab drivers ranked somewhere in between eating at Taco Bell and getting daihrrea, which is commonly one and the same.
Upon pondering this biased opinion further, I now realize my criticism of taxi drivers wasn’t entirely fair nor accurate. Alas, some drivers are very good people who put in very long hours. Maybe a couple, anyway. Like many working-class folk, cab drivers are overworked, underpaid, exploited by superiors, those prickly cab companies who have forced everyone to dance in the shit parade for far too long. With Lyft and Uber riding to the rescue for consumers, local transport habits are changing fast and dinosaur taxi companies are beginning to see their axels stuck in a tar pit.
When I used to take taxis, which was often, I got fed up with the smelly cars, burned out shells of bitter souls, the chronic complaints, long-haul airport-connector tunnel rides, $3 credit card surcharges, $2 add-on fees for baggage, an extra charge for the airport, $45 fares that took 20 minutes to drive, and seeing every single inch of the car looking like a Times Square bum wearing a sandwich board. Admittedly, these annoyances weren’t the drivers’ fault. It’s the system.
Still, the resentment lingers and remains something I just can’t shake. The scab on old wounds has ripped open again after facing considerable unpleasantness with cabbies, transgressions like — intentionally cutting me off in traffic, honking horns for no reason, flipping me the middle finger (okay, I flipped him off, first), and behaving like total assholes. Professional drivers — no matter who they work for — do share a kindred spirit. We’re out there on the streets day and night busting ass, taking mostly the same risks, simply trying to make a decent living. There’s no reason to be vicious and vindictive, yes, even though I find myself becoming increasingly vicious and vindictive.
If cabbies want peace, then my olive branch heretofore is extended. If they want war, I’m ready to battle. Trust me, I’m driving a fully insured vehicle and it can be used to make my point. Warning: Do not tread on me.
Changing the subject now to a topic equally as bothersome, let’s talk about pay scales.
Express Lyft drivers make .40 cents per mile (on average), while driving with a fared passenger onboard. Forty fucking cents. That doesn’t include mileage to go the pick-up point or returning to orbit after the drop-off. Compare the travesty of earning .40 cents per mile versus cab companies which charge passengers a whopping $2.76 per mile, and that doesn’t include airport surcharges and waiting times. Taxi drivers are dining on caviar, while Lyft (and presumably Uber, too) are living on scraps.
Despite the inequities of rideshare driving, even though the money’s basically dog shit, Lyft nevertheless encourages its passengers to rate each driver immediately after the ride. Sure, direct feedback can be good. I understand the reason for this interactive rating system. No doubt, bad drivers should be called out and dismissed if they don’t improve. But it’s humiliating enough already making $4 fuck bucks to drive ten miles, not counting eating the fuel cost, without the frat brat in the back seat albatrossing a marginal driver with a low star rating. Hell, let’s start grading all the migrant workers picking fruit, and ruin they’re lives, too.
Lyft’s online app ratings range from 1-star (worst) to 5-stars (best). Following my first week, I had a perfect 5-star score, which basically meant not a single rider complained or was dissatisfied, this despite me making several errors. My second week, Paloma’s mother must have went all Ted Bundy on my driver profile because my star rating suddenly dipped to 4.8. Bitch. While I’m assured that’s still a very high rating, actually about as good a score as possible after several hundred rides, it still bothers the hell out me to get a bad rating from anyone. Here I am stacking .40 cents a mile and I’m worried about my star rating like some 2nd-grader anticipating his math report card.
I guess what I’m saying is, we all want to be loved. Especially, rideshare drivers.
No memorable fares or incidents on this Monday. That will change in a big way in the days to come.
Daily Tally: 17 rides given and $137.76 in earnings.
Day 16 (Mar. 5) — Around midnight on my second night of the week, a slower-than-average Tuesday, I receive a ping to make a pick up at Hawks Gym. That’s a gay bathhouse located off East Sahara. I didn’t know these details before. See how fast I learn about the hot spots of my fair city? Now, I can play the ideal Las Vegas tour guide for all people and every occasion.
Wanna suck a cock? I know just the place.
Hawks Gym is nestled next to The Green Door, Las Vegas’ oldest and most established swingers club. Both adult entertainment establishments are located in a run-down strip mall with hookers prancing along the sidewalks and garbage blowing through the parking lot where there’s also a roller rink and an all-night Spanish-language evangelical retreat. Go figure. Lotus of Siam was located in this strip mall before once night during a storm the entire fucking roof caved in and forced the popular Thai restaurant to relocate to a more mainstream location. I can only imagine the wild scene if the roof would have caved in at Hawks Gym or The Green Door, instead. Everybody fucking and then the ceiling suddenly collapses. Man, I’d have paid the entry fee to witness that scene.
So, I pull in front of Hawks Gym and there’s a burly, bearded man standing there waiting. A flannel-shirt and sideburns kind of guy. I don’t think much of it. He said he was going back to his “rig” way across town on West Tropicana. At first, I thought he said “crib.” But the man said “rig,” whatever that meant.
Seeing the man had just departed from something called a “gym,” and this was nothing unusual since there are plenty of late night rec centers all over town, I asked — “So, how was your workout?”
“Really slow, tonight. The slowest night I’ve seen,” the man said. “But there were still a few hot guys.”
If my foot wasn’t on the gas pedal doing 45 in a 35 zone it certainly would have been stuffed into my mouth at that instant. Hawks Gym….ahh yes, now I get it! Bingo!
From my inquisitiveness, the man must have presumed I knew all about Hawks Gym and was a regular, so he proceeded to provide intimate details of his sexual escapades. Admittedly, this was wild fun to listen to, purely in an anthropological sort of way, of course. The man also confessed he’s “madly in love” with a guy back in Phoenix, his hometown. But he also had steady lovers spread out all over the West — in Kingman (Arizona), Jackson (Wyoming), and Reno (Nevada). I got all this golden information in a 20-minute Lyft ride, once again validating the “stranger on the train” phenomenon. Perhaps instead, they should call this “stranger in the Lyft car.” [I stole this line from an Arthur Reber Facebook post].
I also learned the man’s “rig” was actually a truck and this guy was a trucker. He’d parked his rig in a slimy lot, where the only smell is gasoline and exhaust fumes. The man moaned he was sick of “lot lizards” working the overnight trucker station. Lot lizards? Lot lizards (hookers) bang on the truck doors late at night looking for “dates.”
“I don’t want no pussy!” the man frequently yelled out each night he parks and sleeps on the lot while in town, he tells me. Wow, amazing the things you learn doing rideshare.
We pulled into the trucker lot on Tropicana near Wynn and the man pointed to a giant black beast of an International 18-wheeler that looked more like a jumbo jet from the front view. I couldn’t help but be impressed. We made small talk for a minute more about trucking and then he offered to show me “the inside of the cab.”
Tempting as the trucker’s suspected advance was, I declined the invitation with the excuse it was time for me to get back — on the road again.
Daily Tally: 15 rides given and $97.81 in earnings.
Day 17 (Mar. 6) — We’re forced to carry comprehensive auto insurance. The standard Hertz (with Lyft Express) policy has a $1,000 deductible, a charge that would probably bankrupt half the driving force if they were unfortunate enough to get into an accident.
In some cases, traffic accidents are unavoidable. It doesn’t matter how skilled you are or careful you may be behind the wheel, even the best driver might at any moment get into a crash.
On my tenth work day, I get into a minor fender-bender in the airport staging area.
Wednesday is another slow day, so I find myself waiting longer for a ride in the staging lot (see photo atop this article, which shows the typical view of the rideshare lot, which may have up to 150 cars at any time). The lot is nearly full. We’re all cued up and waiting, one by one.
I was legally parked and taking a short rest, which meant reclining my seat just a little and closing my eyes. Just as I was about to doze off, the entire car rocked off to one side and I heard a loud crash.
Some idiot driver wasn’t looking where he was going and pulled forward, slamming into the front wheel panel on the passenger side.
I jumped out and immediately surveyed the damage, which was remarkably insignificant to my Nissan but had seriously damaged his vehicle, which I presumed was also rented by the looks of it.
“Byy are you bahking dere?” the weathered-looking man wearing a ballcap asked in a thick accent that seemed either Pakistani or Indian, I couldn’t tell which. It wasn’t a question so much as an accusation that I was at fault.
“Hey good buddy, uhh, I was parked here. You slammed into me,” I snapped.
The man stood there for five minutes surveying the scene, scanning the” damage,” and taking pictures. He must have snapped a couple of dozen images from his phone. He also started asking nearby drivers if they’d seen anything. This was suddenly turning into the Kennedy Assassination.
I snapped a few photos myself for my own protection and then told him that we’d deal with the matter later through our insurance companies. My phone indicated a new pick up, so I had to go make a quick $7.45 — which I figure might come in handy to pay my dime deductible, if it came to that.
Daily Tally: 11 rides given and $85.61 in earnings, and one minor fender-bender.
Day 18 (Mar. 7) — I’d read about perks to Lyft driving. Strip clubs reportedly offer cash kickbacks to drivers who take clients to hotspots like Sapphire, one of the largest flesh factories in Las Vegas. Cannabis dispensaries also allegedly give drivers bonus money to bring in new customers. There have even been reports of bunny ranches in Pahrump, about an hour’s drive away across the Spring Mountains, giving drivers a couple of hundred dollars in kickbacks to bring them a customer.
Stupid me hasn’t received one single kickback from anyone yet. In fact, I went the entire 28 days without so much of an opportunity or even an offer. I’m no moral puritan, but I’m not entirely comfortable with conducting my personal and professional affairs that way. Seems wrong to haul someone who’s seeking advice to a club for the sole reason of taking a cash payoff. I have no problem recommending anything to anyone, provided I actually know the subject matter and do have an opinion about it. But my recommendation isn’t for sale unless, of course, someone does demand a ride to Pahrump and the madame wants to slip me a couple of hundred as a thank you. I’ll let you know when that happens. Until then, I won’t be exhaling any cannabis.
One unusual thing happens on this Thursday evening. A woman gets into my car just off Fremont Street downtown. She wants me to transport her to far East Las Vegas and then bring her back to the same spot. This is called a fare with multiple stops.
Along the way, the lady begins to negotiate with me. She wants me to charge her for just one way, and then cancel the return part of the fare. I tell her I can’t do that. Next, the woman insists she can give me “lots of business” and pay cash for all her rides. She even tells me she takes Lyft and Uber to Los Angeles all the time and she’s currently looking for a “new driver.”
Mind you, I picked up this woman off 14th Street and Fremont five minutes ago.
I politely decline this splendid opportunity to enhance my investment portfolio and become what amounts to a private chauffeur. But before leaving the car on the (paid) return trip, she insists on taking down my cell phone number. She tells me she’ll text me next time she needs a ride to Los Angeles. Visions of the woman swindling me to make the 220-mile trip flash into my head, and once we arrive in L.A,, and before paying for her ride, she jumps out of the car and runs away. Sounds like a scam.
I make up another excuse that we’re not allowed to do that. I’m winging it at this point. Being calm and polite probably serves me better in this spot than just saying, “get the fuck out of the car and get lost.”
Besides, what driver wants to get a 1-star rating?
Daily Tally: 15 rides given and $108.72 in earnings.
Day 19 (Mar. 8) — Lyft must incentivize drivers to work at premium times of day or night and work the more difficult areas of the city. They do a terrible job with incentives in relation to special events, as I pointed out in my tirade (Part II) when I lambasted the low pay for fares right after hockey games at T-Mobile Arena. Man, fuck those thirty-minute $3.97 fares.
The incentives are called boost times and priority zones which multiply the drivers pay anywhere from 25 percent up to 100 percent, which is double the standard fare. On a couple of occasions, I’ve seen the boost notification go as higher as 200 percent, which means that’s triple the normal fare.
Boosting sure sounds wonderful. But I’m also convinced it’s used as bait to get drivers to swim to colder waters. That old devil’s scent. Early on, I chased the boost zones, but usually, by the time I got there just a few minutes later, the 100 percent increase had fallen significantly, and sometimes had disappeared altogether. My advice to Lyft drivers is — don’t chase phantom ghosts. While there are indeed some times of day that are more profitable (very early in the morning is probably the best example as cars are needed for hotel-to-airport runs as early as 4 am), I’m not sure the hassle of picking up at the Las Vegas Convention Center at 5 pm after 20,000 trade show attendees are exiting is really worth the extra $3 or $4 on the fare. Just my opinion based on what’s admittedly limited experience.
I do understand there are inherent responsibilities that go along with working for any company. Riders look to drivers as “Lyft employees,” even though we aren’t. We’re on the front lines, in the battle, wearing the uniform, taking the abuse — but without any flags and victory parades.
Sometimes it takes manure to grow roses. In the service industry, you swallow your pride, keep your mouth shut, and nod yes. That’s the way it works in tipped occupations, even though by my estimate only about 1 in 10 riders leave any kind of tip at all. I guess there’s the holdout of hope each time a new passenger climbs into the back seat that this is the one that forks over the five or ten spot or if I’m really lucky — a twenty [Note: My highest cash tip in 404 rides over 28 days was $20. My second highest tip was $8 — thanks again, Angel].
The dangling of carrots can make tigers and bears jump through rings of fire and the hope of receiving a cash tip while driving means I’ll go out of my way and even make sacrifices, on occasion. Several passengers have asked if I’d make a “quick stop” at a convenience store, or drive somewhere else not on the standard route, purely as a favor. As an independent contractor, I’m certainly willing to do this, especially for people who look like they could use a break. But I also don’t like being taken advantage of. Man, that really pissed me off.
Friday night at 1 am, several airport pick ups are over in Terminal 3, which is where all international flights arrive. It’s also the time of day when Frontier, the discount airline, arrives from Chicago and Denver and elsewhere, flights which are packed to capacity with passengers who paid less than $120 round trip because of a special fare happening this month.
A hipster-looking half-shaven guy who disembarked from one of those Frontier flights gets in the car. While driving over to the far west side of town, the hipster asks if he can use my phone charger. I comply. The phone remains plugged in during the 25-minute ride.
It’s dark in the car and by the time he exits, we’ve both completely forgotten about the phone laying in the back seat that’s connected to the portal. I drop off the hipster at a large apartment complex and then drive away.
A few minutes after returning to the road, I look down and see the phone plugged in. So, I try to log in, but it’s password protected. I immediately send a note to Lyft reporting the lost item. Following the rules. I consider driving back to the apartment complex and searching for the man, but there’s no way I would be able to find his unit.
Another ten minutes pass and now I’m at least five miles away. The phone rings. I answer it.
“You’ve got my phone!”
“Yes, I do.”
“Can you bring it back to me?”
It’s an inconvenience, but the hipster does need his phone back. If the roles were reversed, I’d certainly appreciate someone doing me a favor. Besides, the guy will certainly make it worth my while and leave a tip. Right?
Ten minutes later, I’m back at the apartment complex again. The hipster takes his phone and asks me if he wouldn’t mind taking him up to the Red Rock casino.
“You live up near there, don’t you? he asked. [That came up in conversation earlier]
Another ten-minute car ride, completely out of my way — I give what amounts to a free ride. We arrive at Red Rock, where the hipster says “thanks,” exits the car, and darts away towards the nightclub. No tip.
What a stingy jerk-off motherfucker.
My longest and best day driving ends on a sour note.
Daily Tally: 30 rides given and $310.79 in earnings, which includes a $55 bonus.
Day 20 (Mar. 9) — I’ve noted driving is a numbers game. Given enough time, you’ll see almost anything possible on the streets.
Saturday is an abbreviated driving session given how long I worked on the previous day. Late in the evening, I pick up a middle-aged Hispanic woman wearing a maid uniform at the El Cortez downtown and take her to the far east side of town.
As we approach the quiet intersection of Charleston and Nellis, the streets seem deserted. Except for what’s ahead. About a quarter mile up the road, a dozen police cars are sprawled all over the street. Usually, when you see this many cops, that means something serious is going down — like a shooting.
Just as we come to a red traffic light, in my rear view mirror a catch glimpse of a cop car barrelling down Nellis southbound, racing towards the crime scene. The car is zooming 60 to 70 miles an hour. Instinctually, I swerve my vehicle off to the side to allow the police car to pass.
Just as I move over to the sidewalk and come to a complete stop, the police cruiser races into the intersection where a white Toyota has suddenly appeared out of nowhere and cuts in front of the police cruiser with engine roaring and its flashing red and blue lights.
It was a horrifying sound. But the sight was much more frightening. The police car, which I now see is a boxy SUV, t-bones slams the much smaller Toyota, spinning it around and knocking the vehicle sideways towards a traffic pole. Twisted metal and glass flies everywhere. The rider in the back seat screams. I think I yelled out a profanity.
The police car is mangled and smashed in like an accordion. The driver policeman exits the car and momentarily staggers around the empty intersection. He’s dazed. Another officer slowly steps out of the car and kneels down to the pavement.
Meanwhile, the white Toyota is demolished. I’m out of my car by this time and am leaning into the white Toyota since that’s the closest vehicle and the police officer look to have survived the impact. Thankfully, airbags deployed and two ladies are screaming and sobbing with their heads engulfed in what looks like a huge pillow. They’re in shock. It’s a miracle the ladies were alive. I’m not sure exactly what I said or did if anything. Perhaps just hearing a human voice after such trauma was appropriate at that second.
“Stay strong, help is on the way,” I said.
The policeman approached and then also provided comfort. Within another minute or so, two more cop cars had pulled up to the scene and were handling the aftermath of a bad crash, but one which everyone would presumably be okay. From my vantage point, the accident had clearly been the police officer’s fault. He was driving way too fast, and his siren wasn’t turned on. By the time the white Toyota entered the intersection, it was too late.
I left my information as a witness.
Shaken by the incident, I dropped off my passenger and called it a night.
That white Toyota could have been me, or you, or someone you love. You never know what’s on the horizon.
Daily Tally: 7 rides given and $141,22 in earnings, which includes an $80 bonus.
Day 21 (Mar. 10) — Another long driving week has taken its toll on the body and mind. Aching and exhausted and still bothered by the crash just hours earlier, I make a decision to not drive on Sunday. Instead, I vow to put in seven straight days the following week, the final stage of my Lyft contract before returning the rental car back to Hertz.
And on the 7th day, Nolan rested and recovered prior to the final judgment.
WEEK 3 RESULTS:
Total 47 hours driven and 95 rides given….$608.10 in earnings including tips and bonus after $273 rental car cost deduction…..minus $130.00 spent in gas….equals $10.17 per hour.