In life, some things ought to be experienced at least once. Las Vegas is one of them. Recently, I went back there for a second look and returned with an unexpected sense of awe, boundless joy.
My dimmed memory of the previous visit owed much to the passage of time, to be sure, as it did also to the fact of an oil embargo which some thirty years ago had sucked the juice out of the light bulbs and neon tubes that once lit up this tiny speck in the middle of nowhere. While it was built up even then, the town was not much of a place: a few boulevards, criss-crossing the desert, studded with casinos and hotels and chapels and restaurants; the hinterland, where the help lived, stretched modestly into the hills, sporadically, sparsely, in a series of unassuming buildings. The only true attraction for miles and miles around was the fabled Hoover Dam, the floodgate to the very bulging Lake Mead. Overall, Las Vegas was nothing remotely resembling, much less matching, the grandeur of even the prosaic Monte Carlo.
Back then, we had reached this place from San Francisco by car and took up lodging in a proverbial four-by-six room in a fleabag motel, on the frontier of the “strip,” complete with noisy headboards, unstable mattresses, but great acoustics owed to the paper-thin walls. Next time, I would fly there and stay in an upscale hotel dedicated to the city of canals.
Not even wild horses could get me to go back to Vegas — a reluctance that would have required greater argument than cheap airfare, promise of lavish stage shows, shopping, and gambling, as none of these pastimes, nor smoking, snorting or drinking is my thing. What did spur me, however, to brave the travel from Los Angeles was the promise of slipping into the warm bosom of high school memories, to listen to life stories, to renew acquaintances, and to rekindle the friendships long ago doused by neglect or dispersion. Deep down, though, I had grown curious recently of Vegas's celebrated evolution from a proverbial hamlet to a metropolis shown on the television series “CSI.”
The night before leaving the City of Angels, over dinner at Darya with two of California's angelic residents, Najib and Hossein, Hossein previewed some of the “must see” attractions for me. He mentioned the magnificence of Bellagio's conservatory and botanical gardens and the impressive musical fountains outside of the Mirage. None of these however could have compared to his recommendation that I experience “the buffet” at Bellagio. I love a good buffet and Vegas has them in spades. I promised him that I would check it out, for sure, and so seeing the buffet at Bellagio became my personal quest.
The flight Vegas on board Southwest took less than an hour, but from the moment when the plane took off — and made its three-quarter clockwise turn over the ocean before heading inland — I got the impression that the trip would not be a short one. I kept thinking of the buffet, the word “buffet” kept repeating itself in my head like a tenacious tune, “buffet, buffet, buffet,” until it started to sound like the American hackney “ba.fay.” Being on a one-year diet, may explain my obsessive preoccupation.
In the seat next to me was a petite blond clad in another airline's uniform — moderately attractive — looking like any man's fantasy to be seated next to an attractive stewardess, if not a uniformed nurse! Yet, in this confined space, I could not bridge the span of my vast shyness separating reality from dream. By the time I deep-sixed the swirling thoughts of the buffet, the fantastic one had fallen asleep. I felt liberated, free to go back to my daydream about the buffet.
Looking down from twenty-eight thousand feet up, nature had spread its own buffet below. Every inch of the desert, its many folds, traces of run-off water, creases, crevices and folds, sandy dunes and rocky hillocks and outcrops told of an endless growing pain through a millennium or more of unfinished time. Desolate, stark and dry, some of the mountains rose pointedly, stretching their jagged peaks into the whitish blue sky, while some other's looked like their upper floor was never finished, with a flat-top, a crown looking like a cropped military haircut.
The approach to Vegas was awesome, too: the rugged mountain ranges now rose like a fringe to surround the city, which lay jewel-like, helplessly, in the depression, in the palm of this magnificent Martian landscape. The full moon could not wait until dark: it was already out in the late afternoon hour, sitting impatiently and watching the sun beat a slow and bloody retreat behind the hills.
If there is surrealism, I thought, it must look like Vegas at four-thirty in the afternoon of a clear day in the middle of January — the landing strip, against the silhouette of the Vegas skyline, lit-up images of the hotels and resorts in the near distance. The ride from the plane to the terminal, the overpopulation of slot machines, and hundreds and hundreds of people milling about, everywhere, purposefully and orderly, in patterns designed to move things along in a space-like colony where turn over is king.
The ride from the airport to the hotel would have been eventless were it not for a spectacular alignment of the moon. Already full, the moon had risen just so that when I looked at it from the window of the minivan it had framed itself perfectly in the letter “O” the sat atop of a billboard about the famed “Cercle du Soleil” show. Amazing, I thought.
The check-in was uneventful. The room was spacious and comfortable. Amir was already there since three o'clock. He and I said hello as if it were just yesterday we had parted last August in Union City. We readied to join our schoolmates downstairs for drinks. The familiar among them had grown older, some looking prosperous, some not, and the unfamiliar soon became familiar. Among the stories told and retold that evening I found proof in my newly formulated thesis that people with a prolonged boarding school experience are more likely to experience marital nightmare, leading often to at least one divorce or no marriage at all. The reason for this, I have postulated, is that conduct in boarding school is regimented, ordered, prescribed and scripted and, consequently, a boarder learns next to nothing about negotiating differences, to give-and-take, to compromise, to communicate effectively, to manipulate, to dissimulate, to dissemble, to go along, to get along. For most, when the school-year was over and one reunited with one's family, dutiful pleasing of the parents provided little time for an unencumbered learning about conflict resolution.
Most of the stories I heard were of sacrifice. One schoolmate shared with whomever cared to lend an ear that she left the Emirates and her marriage to an American when it had become clear to her that staying on would end up in bodily harm to her; decades ago she flew back to the States and raised her daughter all on her own. She earns a living as an accountant and on her free time, if any, she dances a part in the Nutcracker every winter with the local ballet company. Her daughter now has a child of her own. To me, however, she, who is now in her mid-to-late forties and remarried, will always be one of the “Aramco Brats,” whose parent worked for the Arabian-American Oil Company in Saudi Arabia, who frequently went down to the “Persian Gulf,” as she put it, and skinny dipped in its warm waters off Dhahran.
Another schoolmate related that she had been married for sometime before a divorce send her and her daughter into a life of their own, in which she gave birth to a second child without the benefit of a second nuptial; finally, some twenty-odd years later she recently left Europe for the safety of the New York area, one kid in college and the other nearly so. She works in public relations.
A third schoolmate had come all the way from northern Canada, where he plies his trade as a petroleum engineer. He and the Mrs. were no strangers to Las Vegas, where for years they have vacationed, with the kids and all. They, like people who knew what they were doing, rented a car and hit all the discount places and outlet stores.
Last but not least, was another schoolmate, with an incredibly giddy personality, with a contagious laughter. She listened more than she talked about her life: blissfully married, she works and plays in Long Beach, California.
None in the group that I just described had shared a single meal when in boarding school; gender, class year, and age differences were the defining criteria then. Yet we all understood this night that reunions are as much about catching up than they are about going forward, giving perhaps birth to memories that we will revisit some years down the road as the shared experience of this reunion. To this lot, already bored by 11 o'clock, and hungry, I sold the idea of visiting the buffet at Bellagio.
We left the cocktail reception and its run-of-the-mill finger food and piled into Mike's super-economy sedan. He and his wife took over the front seats, and the rest of us — all four — squeezed tightly in the back seat, with the help of the doorman who pushed the door shut with great exertion against the Giddy One's rump.
The ride to Bellagio was a barrel of fun, reminiscent of the unruly school excursions. For one thing, it was observed, over and over, by the Giddy One that Flamingo hotel housed famous penguins! Yes, it did and we bought her a small stuff penguin on the morrow as a souvenir. The Ballerina kept chiding the architects who managed to cram the look-alike of the Acropolis next to Caesar's Palace, on the same parcel of real estate. It was noted with great hilarity that in a thousand years from now the archaeologists would want to know why the replica of these two edifices in the land of the Greeks and Romans across the ocean were built later so far apart from one another!
The Paris, with its mini-Eiffel tower, dazzled. I could not help but remind the group that the person in charge of the mathematics of this replica's project was an Iranian engineer. Of course that went over big coming from one who all through high school claimed everything began in Persia!
When reached Bellagio. Mike, the engineer, and very knowledgeable about potential energy, requested that we open the back doors gently so that the people sitting at the ends, with their butts tightly compressed against others, would not shoot out of the car like a missile. The mere thought of such a release was enough to send us reeling with side-splitting laughter.
We entered the palatial foyer of Bellagio. Murals were everywhere, on the walls, on the ceilings, tall and short. Marbles covered the floors. The botanical garden offered its gaudy attractions in plain view; the gold fish, each the size of a size seven shoe, floated in the tank. Impressive, yes, but pointless.
We wandered about looking for the buffet. It had closed for the night.
The Hossein “buffet posse,” disappointed but undeterred, instead took in a light but intimate supper at a regular diner, while admiring the kitsch. It was resolved that in the morrow the group would make another effort to reach the buffet. No agreement was reached as to time and it was left to me to arrive there before noon and then signal the rest of the band to join in. The posse dropped me off at my hotel. I asked the concierge for a wake-up call around seven-thirty: it was important to get to the buffet on time, when all was still fresh. Soon I will learn that because of the turn over, everything is fresh all the time.
Amir was already in bed, exhausted from a long night's delights, none of which included anything remotely carnal. I had had more fun being in the overcrowded back seat of a sedan. Farzin, our mutual friend, had already left Amir's side for his own hotel. Reminiscing about the year that we had roomed in boarding school, Amir and I chatted with the lights off. Before any of us drifted into sleep we had resolved to check out the buffet together in the morning.
I awoke first and procured us a few cups of coffee from the cafeteria downstairs. Amir called Farzin and pitched to him the idea of the buffet and finally by ten o'clock we were at Farzin's hotel ready to pick him up. His roommate was still in the shower. It took him a good forty-five minutes to get ready. So by 11 o'clock we were four and on the way to the buffet. In the lobby of Farzin's hotel, Farzin's roommate ran into a few of his classmates and, before I knew it, it took another hour to get on the way. The new “buffet posse” — five in all — began the long interrupted walk to Bellagio.
The line to the buffet stretched for a good length of the football field. Yet, it moved quickly. We each paid the $23 price for the unlimited buffet and entered the forum. Eating out in America is a sport, eating well is a spectator sport. This was a veritable circus: from the proverbial camel's egg to the even more proverbial chicken milk had been assembled in an area called the “ba.fay.”
Pastries of all kind, with or without pedigree, straight or gay, nutty or fruity, black, brown, yellow, white or red, sticky or powdery, sweet or semi-sweet or not. In another station, fruits of all kind, tropical to super-market, round or long, fuzzy or slick, in all colors, with seed or without. Another area housed the breakfast meats: sausages of all sizes, long, skinny long, thick and stout, seasoned or not, slightly arched or straight as a pencil.
Sushi everywhere. Cereals of all kind. Eggs of all makes, some prepared to one's liking on the spot. Pancakes. Roast beef and other roasted flesh. Shrimp in three sizes: tiny, medium, and jumbo, icy-fresh and cooked to perfection. Sushi rolls. Scottish salmon. Vegetables and legume of every description, including a delicious blend of endive and radicchio. Bread: round, long, flat, raised, oblong, and some obliquely bread. Jams and spreads heaped in huge bottomless baskets.
Naturally, this corner of the world had nothing to do with the greater percentage of earth's humanity or how little it took to feed a child from the brink of starvation. If guilt was one's trip, this was the morgue. As far as buffets went, however, this was it. How much $23 could buy here was impressive. More so, I was impressed by the order of this spread: no bumping into another, no elbowing, no stepping on someone else's foot. There was a remarkable calm to this: serenity engendered by plenty — that, all will eat and eat enough of everything. I did eat, to the extent that my smallish built and diet permitted.
Meals like this do not have a half-point. One measures the mid-point by the retroactive division of one's stay by two. Sometime, in the mid-point of the meal, the three of the posse from the night before arrived, exhausted from shopping; Mike and his wife had enough left however to forgo the buffet for yet another outlet.
After the buffet, which stood up to its reputation and exceeded anyone's expectation, we split off into two groups. I along with three others walked the streets looking for souvenirs and adjourned into the Paris for a make-belief espresso. The ersatz surrounded this venue. We knew it and yet we managed to go along with it. Two things however disappointed even more than the fake tree that sheltered us — one was
Expresso! The other that the
Expresso was served in paper cups. Never in Paris.
Strolling along the main drag, we stopped at the musical fountains. It was a most impressive and breathtaking combination of music and jet d'eau, synchronized to such precision that when the noise of the falling water hit the surface it corresponded with the beats of the percussion in Elton John's candle in the wind, or the cadence in a symphonic piece, or the bursting of rockets during the Star-Spangled Banner, all amazing, glorious.
That night we — all hundred or so schoolmates — assembled at a tiny restaurant in the northern edge of the city. Quaint, mellow. Conversation flowed effortlessly; occasional silence or lull in the conversation was not an embarrassment. The tall and statuesque blond from Florida had me in stitches still over her remark from the night before. When I asked to what she attributed her divorce a few years back, she had replied that it had nothing to do with boarding school and everything to do with her husband's boyfriend! Now, she was there with her colleague, a brave man whose birthday we all serenaded as if he were one of us.
The “senior ditch day” which had become a tradition from 1972 onward had begun in the spring 1971, when my class left school en masse to protest something or another. Nothing was fixed as the result of it, except that for the rest of the semester we worked double to erase the F's that were doled out in punishment. The school's much-heralded soccer championships that had become the legend of Europe, too, began, with the 1970-71 team, coinciding with the time when myself, my dear friend Mac, and a few others, arrived there after our school closed its doors at the end of our eleventh grade.
The speeches that beckoned a moment of quiet in order to be heard were heard despite the noise, only because what was said was already heard, felt deep in each of us.
This was not a reunion, because many of the crowd that sat elbow to elbow, breath to breath, never knew each other in that other life. This was more like a congress, with representatives from different places and generations all assembled in one location from across great divides — of nationality, age, gender, ethnicity, race, socio-economic backgrounds, and even dress — one clad in the most revealing decollete evening gown, another wrapped in a religious garb revealing a different personal preference.
The next day, I woke early to leave for the airport. Amir awoke just long enough to give me a hug goodbye. The ride to the airport was short and sweet, as most of Vegas' revelers chose to sleep- in on that Sunday morning. I financed the ride from the modest winnings that had resulted the night before from an impetuous investment of a single quarter in the slot machine in the lobby of my hotel.
Being raised abroad for most of my life and having been fortunate enough to have seen and learned as much as I have experienced first hand, and still by all means with room to spare, very little impresses me or should. Every instinct in my body had told me beforehand that it was all fake and unimpressive. Nothing about it had been impressive, until the plane took off. Looking down at the speck in the middle of nowhere, I closed my eyes for a moment, and accepted without reservation the inevitable resolution that … it had been all very impressive. Hossein's buffet, too, had left its impression.
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