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Posted by on Jun 1, 2019 in Blog, Essays, Movie Reviews, Music and Concert Reviews | 0 comments

Movie Review: Elton John Musical Biopic “Rocketman” Crashes and Burns

 

"Rocketman"

 

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.

 

Image result for rocketman movie poster

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Posted by on Jun 1, 2019 in Blog, Essays | 0 comments

Sustaining Passions For Poker

How can you sustain a passion for poker?

 

Poker is a crazy game.

I’ve heard inexperienced players say that they “hate Aces and Kings”, usually because they’ve had their glorious starting hands beaten down by 8-9 offsuit. Ultimately, the resentment that they feel for the innate deck of cards is misplaced, but at least they still feel something.

After the 1000th bad beat, the heart no longer beats for every turn of a race. After a million, players tend to give up on caring about outcomes altogether and focus only on making the right move.

Cards are cruel, and variance is a fact of life. Understanding this makes poker (and life itself) more bearable. This shift of focus from feeling defeated every time a pair of Aces are cracked, to maintaining a technical approach to play, constitutes the maturity of the player to become a potential winner.

 

Rage of a bad beat…

Yet something is lost in the process. If one cannot feel alive when Aces are cracked (or when they hold to bring a much-needed victory pot), then how can one maintain a passion for poker? It’s a battle between taming emotions enough to be able to make sound decisions and having enough fire left in your belly to really turn up for tournaments, wits and all.

Learning is the answer, as cliché as it sounds. Players who step over the invisible line, the line between caring about outcomes and not caring about outcomes, must dedicate themselves to a constant process of learning.

If a player’s satisfaction can no longer depend on their pair holding up against an opponent’s flush draw, then it must lie with knowing whether they made the correct move or whether they could have played the hand better.

Regardless of how the deck played out – an element completely beyond their control – they can find joy in confirming their own play and improving on it. On a practical level, this means reading, training and analyzing hands, as well as practicing the game through the lens of constant improvement.

Again, newer players are likely to feel spongier than those who have been on the circuit for a long time. At first, the mind can’t help but try to make sense of the game. It seeks to understand, then to expand and experiment. But whether playing guitar or poker, there’s always plateaus to overcome. After a while, even the most passionate of newbie will lose steam. Effectively, they have reached a point of “Can do it”, and they slow down.

The learning must continue indefinitely if the player desires to become pro or semi-pro, but now is also the time to broaden the scope of what it means to stay passionate. Doubtful you can sit alone in your room reading poker books and grinding online for too long and still enjoy poker. It really helps to get more involved with the scene, to meet and dine with other pros if possible.

You could also consider entering major events. I would never recommend that you play outside of your bankroll, but then again grinding $1 SNGs for an entire lifetime is hardly the definition of fulfillment. Do what you can to set goals, progress and get out of your comfort zone with Sunday MTTs, local casino tournaments and by keeping major events like the WSOP, which this year had 8,569 entrants, firmly on your radar.

Passions are like cocktails. You have to stir them well, water them down, spice them up, or do whatever is needed to make the most palatable, pleasant and intoxicating mix. And like cocktails, passions require that you show restraint or take a break every now and then so that they do not taint your sanity or leave you p*ssed on a weekday. So, is it better to play poker with passion on the weekends, or to play with dull awareness every day?

Poker can be a lifelong love affair and is worthy of a career move for some, but it’s not for everyone. It’s a rare breed who can play day in, day out for a living. Those who are happiest are, in my experience, those who have other hobbies and interests, or other ways to earn money. They are the mixologists of life, who know how to properly prepare their cocktails to their own taste.

 

Footnotes and Credits:

PHOTO 1 — Photo by Sweetlouise // CC0 1.0

PHOTO 2 — Photo by Pixabay // CC0 1.0

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Posted by on May 31, 2019 in Blog, Essays, Travel | 0 comments

Champagne is for All Seasons

 

 

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!

Cheers!

 

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Posted by on May 30, 2019 in Blog, Essays, Las Vegas, Personal, Travel | 5 comments

My 28 Days as a Lyft Driver in Las Vegas [The Final Chapter, I Think.]

 

 

This is the fourth and final chapter of a four-part series.  Well, maybe.

Read PART I here.

Read PART II here.

Read PART III here.

 

Driving for Lyft rekindled an old love affair.

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.

Okay.

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.

I think.

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.

__________

 

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Posted by on May 24, 2019 in Blog, Essays, Personal | 7 comments

Alex Dalla (2001 – 2019)

 

 

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.

 

_________

 

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