COVID-19 IN 2020 AMERICA: MY THREE-MONTH PROJECTION
1. The fissure between the two primary camps with opposing agendas and clashing priorities will continue to rupture. This widening divide is exacerbated because opposing groups now align largely along political and philosophical lines.
2. Since mid-March, *health/safety* advocates have driven virtually all federal, state, and local policy. However, those who prioritize *economy/employment* have increased in number and in the volume of their discontent (i.e., 10 screamers are far noisier than 100 who remain silent). As public patience gradually wears thin, and many regions of the country seem (relatively) unaffected, collective anxiety will worsen.
3. Growing economic hardship caused by the shutdown disproportionally impacts the middle class and the poor. Flames of revolt, increasingly fanned by conspiracy theorists and the constant drumbeat of right-wing media, make current policies unsustainable. This means social distancing guidelines are now being relaxed as America begins to “reopen.” While this is a reckless public policy, and potentially catastrophic given what we know (and we don’t know) about the pandemic, it’s just as inexorable. Ordering people to prepare for a hurricane when they don’t see clouds and rain is ineffectual.
4. Unless some economic sectors are permitted to reopen, particularly those impacting small businesses and self-employed contractors (which number in the millions), acts of rebellion once considered unpalatable to most average citizens will increasingly gain support. Justified or not, resentment against social distancing has spread from a few extremists into the mainstream. Personal financial interests will prevail in the debate and will win easily in most communities. Largely shafted or shortchanged by the federal economic bailout, and eligible for only limited state relief, those at risk for losing their businesses will slowly trickle over to the other side of the debate. This has already happened in rural communities and is now occurring in suburbia. Aside from a few “hot spots,” even many cities will decide to take their chances. It remains to be seen if we end up paying a much higher cost down the road as collective impatience leads to compromises in health/safety.
5. Perceptions will be shaped by three primary factors: (1) Preconceptions (2) Source of Reporting (3) The Inevitability of Changing Attitudes
— Our preconceptions about the threat posed by the virus combined with our political affiliation will mostly guide how we react to future events, both good and bad. In fact, I expect these preconceptions will boll weevil disparate camps even further apart.
— If 200,000 Americans are dead by summer’s end, which is a quite plausible projection, is that good news or bad news? Your answer depends on where we get our news and how data is packaged. The Trump Administration will certainly spin this as good news. Anti-Trump forces will point to America’s death toll as the highest in the world (likely) as evidence of failed leadership.
— Our attitudes about risk, sickness, the aged, and even death are changing. Should you doubt this, think again. In war, the value of life becomes cheaper. What we never thought tolerable before, becomes not only acceptable but “normal.”
6. Perceptions about the elderly will be the starkest new reality. Older people will be viewed as more disposable, especially by the young and by a medical system that may be forced to make tough choices as to the priorities of health care (not just COVID-19 related, but overall as resources become stretched). Nursing homes disproportionally feeling the impacts of the pandemic will fade from crisis mode. But what would happen if the virus begins hitting nurseries and schools? Such a shift in the preponderance of victims would produce a radical shift in collective perception, and would certainly not be tolerated by any segment of the population. The key here is to watch which age groups (and racial groups to a lesser extent) make up the victims (minorities are getting harder hit at the moment).
7. Pursuant to #5 and #6 (above), I can’t overemphasize this enough. I’m deeply worried deeply about our collective de-sensitization. We are desensitized to lies. We are desensitized to corruption. We are desensitized to incompetence. We are desensitized to bullying. We are desensitized to suffering, especially the suffering of strangers. We are even becoming desensitized to death.
8. Note that outside of the Metro New York area, the number of COVID-19 cases (nationally) continues to spike. It’s not going down. The numbers are going up. Each day. Yet, restrictions are now being relaxed in most states. While some areas of the country are doing quite well given the overall threat, that’s not to say an outbreak isn’t possible just about anywhere. I project that as the vast majority of states do reopen and gradually lax social distancing guidelines, combined with some public resentment to restrictions, we will experience some shocking new hot spots. These outbreaks will almost seem random, like in meat-packing plants in the Midwest. As people return to work and socialize more, what’s next? Where? Who?
9. So, we are divided — politically and philosophically — which will translate into behavior differences, as well. We are desensitized. American deaths will soon spike over 100,000. We will increasingly come to accept this as a new normal. We insist that businesses must open. Sporting events must be played. Financial interests will guide our path forward and determine public policy. Now, the only question is — what impact will these decisions have? What actions are taken now and in the next three months will impact the remainder of the year, and beyond? Will 2020 be like 1918 all over again, where the first wave was only a small wave of the catastrophe that swept the nation in the fall, undoubtedly made worse by the reduction of precautions? Or, might COVID-19 slowly dissipate and eventually disappear as a serious threat? No one knows, of course. Our assessments depend on to what degree we are willing to sacrifice now to avert future possible disaster.
10. When looking at projection models, the most likely outcome rests somewhere in the middle of extremes. Those who insist the virus is contained or doesn’t pose a danger are terribly naive. However, those who insist on a national lockdown must also come to terms with the reality that such draconian measures are unsustainable, and could even lead to societal chaos.
Accordingly, I’m an advocate for a very cautious approach. This cautious approach must not be driven by extremists but rather by science and by experts.
Thanks for reading. Comments are welcome here or join the discussion on FACEBOOK.
“I write songs. Then, I record them. And, later, maybe I perform them on stage. That’s what I do. That’s my job. Simple.”
THE VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: WEEK 11
DAY 71: “Tell Me” (1967 — Rare B-Side Recording)
Welcome to our 11th week! Each of you who has followed deserves a diploma! Since I can’t do a cap and gown ceremony, instead allow me to continue with the retrospective on Van Morrison’s music and career.
One of the fun discoveries of this project is uncovering gems that are mostly unknown. The hits and lesser-known songs are fun to write about and listen to. But what I really enjoy is the *creative process* and learning more about how art is made and refined.
Here’s a rare track from the Bang Sessions, recorded in New York City in 1967. This three-day labor in-studio spawned nearly 40 new songs and bore the fruit that would become Van’s debut album, Blowin’ Your Mind.
“Tell Me” is a lovely melody, with Van on acoustic guitar. There’s beauty in simplicity. I don’t know why Van didn’t take this tune, enhance it with strings, and then release it sometime later. Seems that it would have made for a nice song on a later album instead of an obscure B-side to a single. Fortunately, YouTube is around to capture and preserve these rare recordings.
As I have attempted to reveal in this project, what really astounds me about Van is his extraordinary songwriting abilities and a keen ear for just the right instrumentation. I’ve tried to show that even Van’s rarest material is sometimes just as good as music by others that came out during the same period and turned into hit songs.
Van is stripped to his core and is his most vulnerable on this recording. Have a listen.
DAY 72: “Take Me Back” (1991)
[Two Versions — First is the cover version by actress Jennifer Jason Leigh / Second is the original recording from the Hymns to the Silence album]
Hymns to the Silence is one of my favorite albums, a must-listen for any fan of Van Morrison’s multitude of soulful ballads. Composed and recorded during one of Van’s most introspective periods, clearly an era of personal and career transition, it also marks a creative pinnacle of songwriting as a 21-song double album packed with a rich mix of styles and tempos.
Disc One one of the album reflects Van’s inner demons, feeling frustrated and burned out. Recall a few song titles, including “I’m Not Feeling It Anymore,” oddly set to the melody of a sing-along. “Some Peace of Mind” and “Why Must I Always Explain” are both expressions of disenchantment, and even resentment with fame and the media. These ten songs smack of unfiltered melancholic honesty, which doesn’t make for good party tunes but is the perfect musical elixir for self-reflection.
Interestingly, “Take Me Back” is the final song on Disc One, bridges to a far more optimistic mood. Perhaps in order to move ahead, sometimes he needs to look back. It feels like Van is intent on displaying before-and-after sides of his own musical juxtaposition. Indeed, the 11 songs on Disc Two are far more spiritual, as Van explores religious themes without becoming preachy.
I opted to post the cover version first, which I believe is a testament to the power of the song which can mean many things to different people. Jennifer Jason Leigh starred in the 1995 film Georgia, which was very a personal project since the movie script was written by her mother. Playing the role of “Sadie,” Jason Leigh drunkenly performs the full nine-minute version onstage in a scratchy voice, totally oblivious to audience reaction. It’s very Van-esque in that way, and so I’m including here.
Van’s original version is far more pristine and musically satisfying, and certainly worth a listen, as well.
DAY 73: “Gloria” (Live Cover by Patti Smith)
Let’s examine some of the greatest cover versions of Van Morrison’s original compositions. Several notable artists have taken Van’s songs and lyrics and stretched them to new heights. One of the very best examples of this is Patti Smith, who takes an old classic and obliterates all conventional expectations as evidenced in this live version of her 1975 cover that was included on her debut album, “Horses.”
“Gloria” was one of Van’s very first self-composed songs with enduring qualities. It’s been covered by hundreds of bands over the past 56 years.
In 1967, The Doors recorded what’s arguably the most successful rendition, which was unofficially titled “the dirty version” Van couldn’t get away with shocking song lyrics nor risky stage performances when the original was written a few years earlier. So, Jim Morrison and The Doors — after playing on the same lineup several nights along with Van at the Whisky A Go-Go in Los Angeles — made “Gloria” a part of their act and later included it on an album.
However, Patti Smith went above and beyond anything imagined by either Van or The Doors. She was a favorite in the NYC club scene spawned from the same string of venues that produced Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, and later Blondie and The Ramones.
Some say it as the beginning of American punk. Smith’s first album took a lead pipe to rock n’ roll, gyrating something so entirely different than what came before that its influence continues to reverberate. Horses is widely considered by most critics to be one of the most influential albums not only in the history of the punk sound but also in the history of all rock and alternative music.
Smith performs Van’s classic here live, which is a raucous display of energy and self-confidence. One of the best covers of any Van song, ever.
DAY 74: “Into the Mystic” (Joe Cocker Cover Version)
I’ve written this before which got me into some trouble with my fellow “Vanatics.”
Many of Van’s songs are much better when covered by other artists. Rod Stewart, Patti Smith, and Joe Cocker are but a few of the other artists who have taken Van’s original compositions and added their own creative interpretation. In fact, I’ll be doing a TOP TEN COUNTDOWN of the best Van Morrison covers of all time, coming ahead shortly.
Here’s the quintessential cover artist of them all, the great Joe Cocker. He’s the anti-superstar, seemingly a mess of a man immersed in an alternative reality. Check out this cover version of “Into the Mystic” by Cocker performed in Germany, with a shirt drenched in sweat. Cocker looks like a psychotic panhandler.
Oddly enough, Cocker even named one of his mini-CDs “Into the Mystic,” released in 1996. I think his studio version is better than Van’s — more blasphemy.
DAY 75: “Have I Told You Lately” (Cover by Rod Stewart)
Van Morrison isn’t known for writing love songs. Yet, he’s written and recorded two of the most popular romantic ballads of the past half-century, both composed about 18 months apart.
“Someone Like You” was a minor hit from the 1987 album Poetic Champions Compose, which has enjoyed a long afterlife as a favorite at weddings and anniversaries.
The 1989 album Avalon Sunset produced an even bigger hit, not so much for Van when he initially recorded it, but rather a few years later when English rocker Rod Stewart belatedly added the song cover to his 1991 album, Vagabond Heart. That memorable tune was “Have I Told You Lately.” Stewart’s raspy-voiced rendition reached #1 on the charts in several countries (peaking at #5 in the US) and remains more closely associated with the punk haired showman than the person who composed it.
To Stewart’s great credit, when I saw him perform this song during his Caesars Palace engagement about six years ago, he acknowledged Van Morrison as the writer to the audience. It irks me when artists fail to acknowledge the actual songwriter when performing, especially when it’s a well-known counterpart. Kudos, Rod Stewart.
“Have I Told You Lately” is pretty simple both rhythmically and lyrically, which is what makes it so widely appealing. Although it’s considered a love song, a little-known fact is — there’s strong evidence Van wrote this as a religious tribute. That’s reflected in the lyrics — most notably….”And at the end of the day, We should give thanks and pray, To the one, to the one….” — which makes for quite an oddity. Indeed, religion and spirituality are the dominant themes on much of Avalon Sunset. In interviews since, Van has never set the record straight on the actual inspiration for the song, but it wouldn’t be entirely out of character for him to be enjoying the royalty checks from the misinterpretation of lyrics that were intended for something quite different than is commonly understood.
Regardless of the basis of inspiration, “Have I Told You Lately” stands up well over time. Long after Van is gone, it’s likely to be sung and performed for decades to come at more weddings and romantic celebrations.
DAY 76: “Wild Night” (Cover Version by John Cougar Mellencamp)
Continuing with our focus on Van Morrison songs covered by other artists here’s “Wild Night,” performed live on The David Letterman Show (1994).
“Wild Night” debuted on the 1971 country-folk infused album Tupelo Honey which initially peaked at #26 on the Billboard charts. More than two decades later, singer John (Cougar) Mellencamp covered the song on his Dance Naked LP. The re-make was a surprise hit, reaching #3 in the USA and topping the charts in several other countries, including Canada.
Interestingly, Van recorded the song as early as 1968. The song is heavily rooted in the familiar Stax sound, with layered horns punctuated with thundering bass guitar. Van’s original is far more brassy, whereas Mellencamp strips away the horns in favor of more pronounced vocals. In short, Van’s voice is merely one of the musical instruments, whereas Mellencamp’s rendition places the Indiana-born so-called “heartland rocker” at center stage. Both recordings share a similar spontaneous quality, with little or no post-production.
Mellencamp was hugely popular in the 1980s. He enjoyed a string of hit albums and singles. Four songs reached the Top 5 (most notably “Hurts So Good” and “Jack and Diane”).
“Wild Night,” which was his last mega-hit single. Mellencamp was also one of the co-creators of FARM AID, an annual concert that benefits small farmers and workers. “Wild Night” is performed at virtually all the shows.
Here’s Mellencamp’s debut performance of the song, just as his 1994 album was being released.
….you’re walkin’ down the street when the wind catches your feet and sends you flyin’.
What a great lyric.
DAY 77: “Madame George” (Cover Version by Marianne Faithful, 1995)
Continuing with the best cover versions of Van Morrison-written songs by other artists…..
British-born Marianne Faithful is one of the seminal icons and voices of the 1960s, the cookie-cutter, perfectly cast personification of the flower child. She was Mick Jaggar’s girlfriend for five years, inspired several songs by the Rolling Stones (note the Beggar’s Banquet period), flew off for three months with The Beatles to spend time with the Maharaji, and later crashed and burned due to heroin addiction and anorexia. She also sang a number of hits, several of which charted.
Known for her whiskey-casked voice, raspy from years of chain-smoking and hard-living, Faithful also appeared in several movies and television shows. In 1995, she starred in an Irish film drama, Moondance, with the entire soundtrack provided by Van. Indeed, Van was tasked with re-arranging some of his most mystical compositions, including “Madame George,” the 10-minute long freewheeling poetic recital from his 1968 masterpiece, Astral Weeks. Filmmakers wanted a condensed version, down to under five minutes, and shockingly, Van complied with the request.
And so, Van re-wrote the lyrics and provided this arrangement which appears on the movie soundtrack. Faithful does an outstanding job with her interpretation. In fact, “Madame George” does lend itself to a female vocal rather than Van’s original, sang and released with when he was only 23.
“Madame George” has widely been reported to be about a drag queen, which Van denies. Nonetheless, as of 1974, he called it the best song he’s ever written. In an interview with rock journalist Ritchie York, Van said of the original version of “Madame George”….
“Madame George” was recorded live. The vocal was live and the rhythm section and the flute too and the strings were the only overdub. The title of the song confuses one, I must say that. The original title was “Madame Joy” but the way I wrote it down was “Madame George”. Don’t ask me why I do this because I just don’t know. The song is just a stream of consciousness thing, as is “Cyprus Avenue”…”Madame George” just came right out. The song is basically about a spiritual feeling ”
Marianne Faithful’s version is divine. I should also note the great Phoebe Snow covered Van’s song, which is right up there, as well.
Have a listen. One of the best comments I’ve heard on Marianne Faithful: “Her voice might be the strongest argument to take up smoking.”
[Special note of thanks to Benjo DiMeo who was consulted on the best cover version of this Van classic.]
WEEK 1: (You’ve Got the Power; Days Like This; Here Comes the Night; Just Like Greta; T.B. Sheets; Domino)
WEEK 2: (I Heard You Paint Houses–The Irishman; Into the Mystic; Wavelength; Bright Side of the Road; Take this Hammer; Queen of the Slipstream; Haunts of Ancient Peace; News– Remembering Joe Smith)
WEEK 3: (Celtic New Year; Cyprus Avenue; Sometimes We Cry; Wild Night; Goin’ Down to Monte Carlo; Enlightenment; Don’t Look Back)
Week 4: (Whenever God Shines His Light; Ordinary People; Gloria; Down to Earth; Golden Autumn Day; On Hyndford Street; Celtic New Year)
WEEK 5: (Your Mind is On Vacation; Naked in the Jungle; Spanish Steps; Tupelo Honey; Fame; The Way Young Lovers Do; Van Morrison Documentary–The Early Years_
WEEK 6: (Go On Home, Baby; Comfortably Numb; These Are the Days; Brand New Day; Bulbs; Rough God Goes Riding; Interviews: 1967 and 2017)
WEEK 7: (Beside You; Little Village; Never Get Out of These Blues; Someone Like You; I’ll Take Care of You; You Gotta’ Make It Through the World; Under Review–Documentary Film)
WEEK 8: (Van Morrison at Montreux; Street Choir; Moondance; Troubadours; Twilight Zone; I Will Be There; Wild Honey)
WEEK 9 (No Religion; Allow Me; When I Deliver; The Healing Game; Help Me, And The Healing Has Begun; Linden Arden Stole the Highlights)
WEEK 10 (Caravan Live; David Letterman-with Sinead O’Connor; I’ll Be Your Lover Too; Hungry For Your Love; Irish Heartbeat; Sean Cullen Comedy Impersonation; Jimmy Fallon Comedy Impersonation)
The Castaways Casino was open from 1963 to 1987. Here’s my recollection of that forgotten slice of the Las Vegas Strip before it was demolished to make way for The Mirage, which stands in its place today.
It was cramped. It was smokey. It was hot. It was dusty. It was ugly. It was a hellhole. And, it stank.
But none of that mattered at age 21. None of those things were important when visiting Las Vegas legally as an adult for the first time every bit as capable of debauchery and degeneracy and depravity as the rest of America’s mad herd of merry gamblers.
I can’t identify what exactly it was that made the Castaways so damned appealing, so fun, so interesting, so compelling, and — now 36 years later — so memorable. The Castaways wasn’t luxurious like its Haute neighbor Caesars Palace, next door. It wasn’t famous like the Flamingo, down the block. It wasn’t known for world-class entertainment like the Sands, across the street. It wasn’t Ballys. It wasn’t the Aladdin. It wasn’t even in the class of run-down mobbed-up Dunes, soon slated for demolition.
The Castaways was a cramped square-shaped casino that resembled the inside of a bus station. And it was loud. Outside, the parking lot was too dark. Inside, the casino was way too bright. There was a small hotel, with 100 rooms, the quality about equal to a Motel 6 about five years too late for renovation. There was a restaurant on the premises rumored to be pretty reliable, serving a truck-stop like menu 24/7 with prices starting at 99 cents for a full continental breakfast, including a tiny glass of artificially-flavored orange juice.
I made at least four trips to the Castaways between the ages 21 and 25, sometimes with $300 in my pocket and once with about $7,500 — my fate the same on each and every trip. My final visit was in 1987, only a month before it closed down and was bulldozed to the ground to pave way for Las Vegas’ first giant mega-resort called the Mirage, which opened two years later in 1989. The Mirage is a gorgeous hotel to look at and it ushered in what’s known as the modern era of Las Vegas with 4,000-room resorts being commonplace, famous TV chefs, circus acts, and showrooms of shopping and more shopping.
But I do miss the old Castaways. Yes, I do. Yeah, it was a dump. But it was the dump where I liked to hang out. Like an old pair of shoes or the girl you first fell in love with or a cheap can of beer, it all just seemed so real, so authentic.
The Castaways never established its own niche until perhaps it was too late and the times had changed. Maybe that’s why some of us connected with it so easily. As a casino, it was the orphan. A stepchild. More of a black sheep. It was the ugly offspring that struggled and always had to borrow money from rich parents and brothers and sisters. It was an oddball and an outcast. And it eventually ended up as rubble, the spot where it once stood obliterated to the dustbin of history by a fake volcano.
Nothing seemed to go easily for the Castaways from the day it first opened. In 1963, the casino was themed as a Polynesian Resort, with Tiki torches and palm trees surrounding the exterior. The hit television show Gilligan’s Island with its own set of castaways couldn’t even save the casino, which struggled financially. Things were so bad, the casino had to close its doors by the final day of 1964. Unconnected to organized crime that was so pervasive throughout Las Vegas at the time, skimming apparently played no role whatsoever in the casino’s floundering finances. Fact was, the Castaways was just a very poorly run casino positioned at a horrible spot on The Strip. It sat next to a Mobile gas station. Who would want to gamble at the little place with palm trees across the street when the Flamingo and Sands were packed with pretty people and the greatest live entertainment of the 60s?
The original owner was an oilman and he realized seven wasted figures deep that there was more money buried under the ground than above it. So, the Castaways was sold in 1965. The new owners invested $300,000 and redesigned the outer structure, installing a colorful motif in front which was far more alluring than the simpler facade with thatched roofs made of faux-straw. They also put in eight fresh gaming tables, plus 70 state-of-the-art slot machines. For the next two years, the casino didn’t make much money. But it didn’t lose money, either.
Howard Hughes changed the Las Vegas casino landscape forever when he went on a wild spending spree during 1968, taking full control over at least five major properties. Included in this grand acquisition towards so-called corporate legitimacy was the Castaways. The selling price was reported at $3 million — a tidy sum which included the land, a huge parking lot, the casino, a hotel, a restaurant, and the gaming license. Hughes might as well have stolen the property given what was later to come.
Hughes didn’t survive much longer, but The Castaways did.
It outlived Hughes by more than a decade before a new suitor came along. His name was Steve Wynn. He had a grand idea to tear down the Castaways and build a new casino resort, the likes of which Las Vegas had never seen before.
The Castaways was a pioneer in at least one aspect, and that was sports gambling, and this was all due to the wit and wisdom of the late Sonny Reizner.
For someone widely considered so old school, Reizner was in many ways actually a modern maverick. He one of the most important transitional figures in the history of legalized sports betting. Around 1976, Reizner opened up one of the city’s first sportsbooks located inside a casino, which was housed at the Castaways. Up until then, horse racing and sports betting were thought of as far too labor-intensive and not profitable enough to dedicate proper casino floor space. Hence, racebooks and sportsbooks in Las Vegas were tucked inside smaller OTB-style storefronts that looked like strip malls.
Reizner saw the future and in some ways even manufactured it. He knew that a well-managed outlet for sports gambling could attract new customers. So, he manned a small sportsbook called “the Hole in the Wall.” It took bets on sporting events only. No horse racing.
By 1978, Reizner recognized he could create and then corner a new market when he launched the first-ever NFL handicapping contest. It cost $1,000 to enter. The winner was declared the handicapping “world champion.”
In 1980, Riezner was posting odds on things like “Who Shot J.R.?” from a popular television show. His novel idea of a publicity stunt even created controversy as he issued tickets on the outcome, but the gaming commission stepped in and ruled wagering wouldn’t be permitted on entertainment-related events. He put up numbers (later, for amusement only) on where the Skylab Space Station would crash when it fell back to earth. Indeed, Reizner was a master of generating free publicity, and his home base of operations was the Castaways. The Las Vegas Hilton, the Stardust, and the Union Plaza also caught on to this market and helped foster it, but the Castaways was the kickoff, the tip off, and the ground central, all encased in a cubbyhole containing two betting windows, a few telephones, and a large whiteboard with the latest odds scribbled in colored magic markers.
Long after Reizner passed away (in 2002), and the Castaways was but a memory, the football handicapping contest, and parlay cards, and other fun promotions created by the sports gambling maverick have become staples inside every major casino sportsbook. We all owe a debt of gratitude to Sonny Reizner.
And now, the final chapter, and my own story and recollections.
I don’t have any big scores or life-changing moments from the Castaways. What I remember was a horribly run-down and painfully uncomfortable casino which was the greatest place in the world to hang out.
There were some blackjack tables, a craps table, and slot machines surrounding the parameter walls. Two poker tables flanked the casino floor, separated by rails crammed with barstools. Every seat seemed to be filled each time I went inside and it didn’t matter if it was 4 pm or 4 am.
The Castaways was super player-friendly. Free drinks, never a hassle. Helpful sports betting clerks. But the dealers and pit bosses were what I remember most fondly. They welcomed card counters. They encouraged new players and even helped them place bets. I even saw dealers and supervisors openly tutoring players on “21” basic strategy. You’d never see that anywhere else.
Oh, everyone seemed to be talking and the noise was unbearable. Back then, all the machines used coin in, which meant dirty buckets were pawed by eager gamblers, dropping silver dollars, quarters, dimes, nickles, metal slugs, and even pennies — one at a time, making the cling-clang down the shoot — and then to really get the full effect, multiply the echo of coins by 50 or 60 or 70, and add some bells, and the occasional scream from a lucky winner or furious addicted loser — and the place sounded like a cross between a tin can recycling plant and a hospital emergency room.
Then, there was the smoke. The smoke inside was so thick it was blue. Like a lava lamp hanging permanently in the air, gyrating until it melded with billions of other particle-toxins until it became one giant fucking ashtray the size of a casino. The smoke was so thick it was nauseating. Like burn your nostrils and water the eyes — thick. But no one complained or even cared because no one thought about smoking and non-smoking and second-hand smoke back in 1987. It’s just the way it was. Hell, back then you could smoke on airplanes.
And I remember the poker, played by scary-looking people. Old ladies. Cowboys. People who looked like they were part of the Mafia. They all looked like professionals. Cigs dangling in their mouths while they played, and while they talked even, the ash burning down and getting longer until there was actually a faint glimmer of suspense at wondering just how long that crooked ash from a burning Pall Mall could hang off and extend the butt, before crashing onto either the distorted green table felt or the shirt bib of the smoking poker player who was utterly oblivious to the ash and toxicity of what amounted to working inside a Kentucky coal mine, let alone concerned about the strategic position of the closest ashtray stamped in the Castaways logo.
I can’t forget the beer at the Castaways, either. I’ve tasted lots of cold beer in my life, but the beer at the Castaways might have been the coldest. It was always brought by a smiling waitress in those really thick red glass bottles, where the weight of the container was much heavier than the actual contents. Longnecks. Budweiser longnecks. Ice cold Budweiser longnecks. Goddamn, that beer was cold and it was good.
It was at least 105 degrees in Las Vegas on my final visit. Or, it could have been 110. The black tar burned your feet through the soles. When you pushed that swinging glass door that never seemed to close because people were going in and out all the time, it just went back and forth on its hinges, faintly cutting the hot air outside from the blue nicotine of air inside, as an outdated AC system basically said “fuck it,” that was, if it could talk.
Funny thing was, the Castaways made lots of money during its last few years. Every spot around it was much bigger and fancier, but lots of people must have also loved slumming around in the cheap place where no one ever paid for a drink, where the beer was cold, and cigs weren’t necessary if you smoked. All you had to do was step inside, and inhale.
I lost my last $5 chip at a blackjack table, the last shred of anything of value on my person, but I still ordered another cold beer and took it out the door at an ungodly early morning hour I don’t know since there were no clocks on the walls and time didn’t matter anyway, and I headed back to my freezing hotel room at the Flamingo Hilton, which had luxury rooms shoehorned on the backside on the other side of the pool. When I left that summer night in June 1987, I didn’t realize that was the last time I’d see my old friend. I didn’t even get to say goodbye.
The Castaways shuttered its doors just a month later, and by fall, the parking lot was no longer burning hot but the asphalt was buried in busted concrete and broken glass, surrendered to greater powers and in the shadows of steel girders rising in the near distance.
Note: There were two casinos named the Castaways. This location is not to be confused with the casino that opened later on Boulder Highway and torn down in 2003. Despite the same name, there is no relation.
Here are my thoughts on the best take-out spots on the West Side of Las Vegas. I’m also including places that weren’t so good.
This list is by no means complete. It’s limited to the places I’ve tried in the last few months. Note that I am *not* a take-out enthusiast. I almost never did take-out nor fast food before this crisis. So, this whole ordeal is somewhat new to me.
Flower Child (Charleston and Ft. Apache) — Outstanding quality, healthy food. Build your own platter options, all very tasty. Recommend the protein plus two side dishes for $12. Call in or order online and pick up inside. Social distancing strictly enforced indoors. Lunch and dinner served in very convenient circular take-out containers. All around, a positive experience. Also recommended: Forbidden Rice ($12)
Blaze Pizza (Hulapai and Sahara) — Fast. Easy. Cheap. For $9 you can build your own pizza, and it comes out exactly as you’d get it inside the store in a sit-down setting. Pizza travels well in a box, so there’s that. Online ordering was easy, just check the boxes on toppings your want (unlimited) and the price is the same. For $9 you can’t lose on a fresh, hot pizza. Must go inside to pick up was the only minor grievance.
Zaytoon (Durango and Twain) — This is one of the few take-out places I frequent regularly. Consistently good. $12 gets you the Koobedeh platter (spiced ground beef), rice, tomato, onions, and add a small salad for $5 and you’re all set. Family-run Iranian restaurant. Small kitchen. But fast and reliable. Must go inside to pick up. Served in styrofoam box which is no-frills, but can’t complain about the food, so this gets a high mark from me.
Nittaya Secret Kitchen (Fort Apache and Lake Mead) — This is one of my favorite Thai spots, been here close to 100 times. But this was my first take-out from them. Food travels pretty well, some items better than others. Curbside pick up is very convenient. 20 percent discount on all orders (I think, if memory serves). Sadly, some people might be dissuaded from trying Asian food at this time, which is a whole another discussion. But Nataya is always reliable. To the best of my knowledge, they are doing their entire menus as take-out.
Yassou (Charleston and Buffalo) — Very good Greek take-out with curbside. Excellent quality platters with meat, rice, salad, and pita bread all-inclusive for about $12. Solid. Never a disappointing meal here and take-out is every bit as good as dining inside.
Carrabas Italian Grill (Charleston across from Boca Park) — So-so on food quality and pricing. In their favor, pick-up at curbside is very convenient. One notable exception is the Mama Leone’s Chicken Soup. If you can get portions of that in a takeout bowl (which we did), that alone is worth the trip. Very good spicy chicken soup. The rest of the menu seems pricy and not worth it.
Bonefish Grill (Charleston across from Boca Park) — Family meals are on special; $38 for a meal with a main course, side dish, bread, and cookies which is a decent value. Unfortunately, selections are limited to only about five items. Wife liked them a lot. I thought they were average. Walk up to take-ut window is mandatory. In their favor, Bonefish currently has a “buy $50 gift card and get $25 free” promotion, which basically makes all the orders 33 percent off. I could have listed them in the “best” category if the take-out food and options were better. Nonetheless, they might be worth trying.
Marie Callender’s (Sahara and Cimarron) — They have a family meal bundle where they give you a free pie, which is pretty good. Food is bland but hamburders are decent. Reasonable cost, and very convenient. Can’t believe I’m touting Marie Callender’s. Man, times are getting tough.
Lucille’s (Green Valley/Henderson) — Since the Red Rock store is closed, I ordered from Green Valley and did the curbside pick-up. Didn’t seem busy, but there was still a 90-minute wait on all take out orders. Curbside seems convenient but isn’t. Poor food runner has to go back and forth inside getting extras and making change, delaying the process. Food (barbecue) is typically good here but lost some quality in the take-out experience. Cannot recommend.
Olive Garden (Summerlin on Town Center) — People know I bash Olive Garden as garbage Americanized Chef-Boyardee “Italian” fare, but for the money, you get what you deserve and the prices are reasonable. Tried the lunch one afternoon and the food was horrific. Frozen meals microwaved are much better (I’m not exaggerating — the Italian frozen bag meals at Trader Joes far outclassed Olive Garden). Rubbery noodles. Tasteless sauce. No frills standards. Boring as hell. Cold breadsticks may not be their fault, but this food doesn’t travel well, either. I won’t go here again.
Sonic (Drive-In — Multiple Locations) — No, I didn’t go here, but I found it interesting they seem to be packed every time I drive by. Perhaps it’s the easy drive-up car-hop style of eating that attracts customers. I think most of their food is crap (been perhaps a dozen times over the last 15 years), and I don’t like trays (do they wash them between servings?) and kids touching my food. Just seems like a risk to me, but maybe this is no worse/risky than any other restaurant. I don’t know. Open to persuasion if people think drive-ins are a good idea at this time.
Krispy Kreme (Drive-Thru — Multiple Locations) — Don’t even get me started.
This review is pretty limited because I haven’t done many to-go places. I welcome others who may want to post their own “best” and “worst” take-out spots. Since we might be on lockdown for weeks or perhaps even months, hopefully exchanging this information will be helpful. Please also note that I’m aware the best way to protect oneself is to stay inside and cook. We do plenty of that, too.
Parsley (Tropicana and Fort Apache) — Israeli-owned place that is outstanding. Metal containers make food travel well. Make your own Mediterranean dish for $9-12. Excellent food quality and extensive menu. Must pick up inside. they have counter that makes everything on the spot. Their pita is boring, but that’s a minor complaint. Also. I’m not fond of their sides, but main dishes are wonderful.
Okay, so Marieta and I got into our first fight since CV-19 social distancing began. Guess who won?
Marieta says I don’t do enough work around the house, and of course, this is correct. She asks what percentage of housework I do, and I answer “about 30 percent.” She snaps back, it’s more like “10 percent.” I decide I can live with the compromise number of 20 percent, call things even, and pop open another Negro Modelo to celebrate the house not burning down with a domestic spat.
So, just when I thought everything was okay, we saw a TV show and the guy said he didn’t know how to work the washing machine. I knew I was fucked. Marieta took the cue, and insisted I don’t even know how to work a load of laundry and flip on the machine. I said, “I know how a washing machine works! Who doesn’t know that?”
So, we stop the program and as I walk from the living room to the laundry area it feels like a shuffle to the gallows.
I get to the washing machine. I swear, I think I worked it one time. I think so. Hard to remember. C’mon memory! Kick in!
So, there’s knobs and dials and buttons and settings and I think I might be able to wing this, when she asks where the soap goes. Of course, I blow it and point to the fabric softener thing and hell it all looks the same to me, I mean won’t the soap work there also? What difference does it make? The soap gets to the clothes. Works for me. This all begins another sub-argument, and I’m reminded of the old saying about when you’re stuck in a hole to —– QUIT FUCKING DIGGING!
I surrender. It’s 10 percent. I’m so dumb I can’t work a washing machine. My next lesson — mastering the dishwasher.