"You on the south side?" the man in the SAHARA ENGINEERING DEPT shirt asks me and J. Random Elevator Passenger as we make our 20-story ascent.
We mentally check our locations as the elevator shuffles nervously and pings each floor (except 13.) I'm mentally orienting myself: I have a view of the Stratosphere, probably the best damn view from a 20th story window anywhere, and that means if anything, I'm facing north. Random Passenger standing next to me, it seems, still hasn't gotten past "Uh..."
"I don't even know which way is North right now," he finally says, thickly and haltingly, and the three of us there share a hollow but knowing laugh. It's one of those One Of Those moments. We know what Vegas is capable of doing to a fellow and we're sharing that knowledge right now. It's a bonding experience, but nobody's going to submit it to Reader's Digest or anything, though.
"The south side is the higher-numbered rooms," ENGINEERING DEPT says. "They won't be getting any Internet any time soon." Random Passenger gets off at Floor 18. We soldier on.
"Oh, and the only Pay-Per-View movies on the south side right now are the x-rated ones."
I think of replying "You mean there are other kinds?" so as to generate another one of those One Of Those moments, but it's late and I think of the chestnut well after I've reached my room anyway. So instead I gamely nod and say "Guess you're gonna fix it?"
"...eventually," he replies. Something in that grin tells me he's found his little power niche in the hotel management structure, and he'll exploit it to the fullest.
"Good luck!" I say, as I get off on the 20th floor. ENGINEERING DEPT is continuing up to the top floor, where he no doubt has a command center up there with all the latest technological goozahs. Maybe even rooftop access.
I admit that on this trip around, I'm not as exciting a Las Vegas traveller as my adventuresome cohort on the elevator. At least, I'm dull as dishwater to the casinos themselves. If there's a List of Dullards floating around, to go with the Known Card Counters, Counterfeiters and Cocktail Waitress Mashers, I am certain I'm on it. The dullard list, I mean. I'm feeling rather resistant to most of the major vices to which Las Vegas endeavors to cater. I'm not gambling, I don't visit the clubs of the night or strip variety, I drink the cheap drinks or even just sody pop--I can nurse a Dr. Pepper in the all-night cafe like nobody's business. And when the hour turns late, I go back to my room with a notepad and cheap SAHARA ballpoint pen and scribble in longhand. I begin to suspect I've only come out here for das blinkenlights.
There are quite a few of them out there, too. Out my window, I can see lots. Scads. Heaps. Twinkly little buggers, from the hotels and billboards in front of me to the residential areas sprawling out to the hills and then falling off the face of the Earth. Prominently featured is the Strat, the 1,000-foot tower with sequenced neon lights wrapped all around the frenum and 3-story video screen at the bottom of the shaft. Currently it's advertising BITE, the gothic revue which looks like they took some showgirls with heavy eyeliner and shoved them into velvet-lined coffins. Hey, it's entertainment.
In front of the Strat, laid out in squares and looking for all the world like Sim City plots, are some elderly bi-level motor courts, probably feeling anachronistically out of place in this city of highrises and megamotels. All three have ancient neon signs in varying states of animation and operation; one has bright friendly letters dubbing it FUN C TY. Another, whose swooping curved arrow dares to flount trademark law, hastily beckons travelers to stay at the HOLIDAY MOTEL. The one in between has a sign too but the nebulous letter shapes are filled with twinkly lights and I can't quite make out what it says (I'll find out in broad daylight that it's called HOLIDAY HOUSE, which makes things really confusing for Pop and his reservations, I'm sure.)
There's a Denny's off in the distance next to a sign reading THE CLASS OF DOWNTOWN, and for a brief moment I think that's an odd scholarly designation indeed. Further on in the distance, just before the metropolis turns really sour, the Fremont Street and downtown casinos blink their little lights, daring the Strip to even take notice. As far as Fremont Street is concerned, I don't need to get any closer to that conglomeration, especially at night. Three Dog Night sang maternal songs about just such a place.
The place is supposedly called "The Caravan Cafe" in hotel literature but honestly, I'm going to stick with calling it the coffeeshop. That's what it is, dammit, the last refuge for the 24-hour party people in the wee small hours of the morning. Every casino has at least one, and there's always a respectable crowd. It's only right for the Sahara to have a Coffeeshop, if this is to be one of the last vestiges of the Rat Pack in Vegas. It conjures up images of two-foot walls of decorative planters constructed of flagstone and individual naugahyde swivel chairs along a long counter, on top of which is a rotating pie carousel. Waitresses with Large Marge hairdos (and heinies which have grown resilient over time to misogynistic pinching) preside over a gaggle of rumpled men in almost-sharp suits, passing the time until the sun comes up and they can go back to their rooms with or without that dame in the next booth. Well, 40 years later, at least the naugahyde swivel chairs are still around. Oh, and the overall rumpled look and feel still exists. It never went away.
The cross-section of humanity now inhabiting the coffeeshops is always wonderful and fascinating. A group of goths (fresh from BITE?) are clustered in one round corner booth, as if it were still 1994 and we were just coming out of Rocky Horror. Japanese couple next to 'em, dressed up in their finest, because it still is a night on the town. Locals next, three leathered faces and cowboy fringe and the whiskiest voices you ever heard. Enter a fat Midwestern fourtop, flush from the Texas Hold 'Em tables and yammering excitedly about their game. They've been busy practicing all year with computer simulations and pokerroom.com, and now their excitement about actually playing the game with actual Vegas players is infectious. We all get to enjoy their spirited play-by-play of the entire thing. Can you believe that river? The kid was terrified! No way was I gonna give up a 10-jack suited. Obvious tell! Couldn't have telegraphed that more with a sign and bullhorn. I knew you had her when I saw the flop. The only thing to do was go all in... And not once does the discussion turn to how much was won or lost. To these guys, it's all about the game.
A chef walks out of the kitchen, resplendent in immaculate chef's whites and tall white Pope hat. I have to tell myself it's all for show, it's all an act. At 2 AM. Yes, an act at 2 AM. Enjoy the show. Seriously. I cannot believe the man who slopped up my hash browns and poached the eggs for my Bennies looks like he got lost on the way to Alain Ducasse. Christ, why not hang some culinary medals around his neck while we're at it? Am I to feel inspired, call him over, and express my sincere compliments to his supreme artistry and genius? How in the world did you ever think to garnish my Eggs Benedict with those two little olive ring nipples? Mind you, I didn't eat them, since they looked more like O-Rings than olives at that point, but that was the intent, wasn't it? Food being such a visual medium and all? Oh, Gerard, you're a wizard, an absolute wizard, and I won't stand to let anyone tell you otherwise.
Or perhaps the coffeehouse shares one giant communal kitchen with the other restaurants, and the fellow is the all-night pastry chef or something. No, don't explain. We need not know. It's better this way.
I Am Not So Completely Enamored Of The Sahara
I dunno. The Orleans, at $50.00 a night last year, spoiled me. The rooms were huge, the bathrooms modern and the cable had TV Land. My room at the Sahara, which is hovering slightly above a $50.00/night average (and yet cheaper this time of year than the Orleans is) is of nominal size. The bathroom has rust around the shower fixtures which squicks me out slightly, and the central AC unit is so old the stylized 50s TV knob has the "COOLER --- WARMER" writing completely rubbed off it. One of the plastic curtain pull rods has been smashed up, its frayed pieces resembling broken bamboo (and just as cutting when you try to grab for it.)
The Orleans had nice glasses for your drinking water with those little paper tops to keep 'em sanitized for your protection. The Sahara has plastic cups the size of a Dixie cup, individually wrapped in plastic but bereft of even a logo.
The carpets are dingy and the elevators positively frightening. One likes to open its door before the car has stopped moving, so you're treated to the sight of the outside world adjusting its vertical hold each and every time you stop at a floor. It's exhilirating, really.
At check-in I listened to a woman read the Riot Act at the desk clerk next to mine. It wasn't a good omen.
"I've been here less than an hour," she announced in that calm Claire Huxtable Gettin' Pissed tone of voice, "And I am truly fed up. I want to speak to someone in charge, and I keep getting the runaround. What do you mean, there's no manager on duty?"
The woman's grievance apparently involved the complete apathy and lack of knowledge of some random gift store clerk, who was unable to tell the lost guest exactly where her hotel room was and in which tower. A typical customer service scenario, really, one whose problems amplify as each level on the service chain passes the problem off to someone else--or worse, points the problem to someone else who isn't there. While I question the judgement of asking J. Minimum Wage Dood where Room 7142 or whatever is, especially when there's a Bell Desk right nearby, it's not the woman's fault here. Anybody she talked to should have been able to take ownership of the problem and see her frustration through. Then again, perhaps nobody really knew where in the chain of escalation to go next.
Regardless of the chain of command, hotels should have at least one person who's given up their soul in exchange for the sole duty of listening to upset customers. Just listen and nod and then say "All right. I understand your frustration, and I sincerely apologize for the inconvenience you have had to endure today. What can I do to make things right?" They don't even have to mean it, really, they just have to say it and then reach into the Big Bin O' Comps for some free crap. Everybody loves free crap. It makes problems go bye-bye.
Unfortunately, what with the hotel situation the way it is, I'm pretty sure the prevailing attitude nowadays is along the lines of "Sure, go ahead, take your travelers' checks to a competing resort. We've got your non-refundable deposit anyway, and we'll end up just giving your room to a last-minute arrival. We'll even charge him more for the privilege, so it's win-win for us."
But... eh. Even with all the anti-glitz and the rust around the bathroom fixtures and the staff apathy, the place isn't a total dump. It's not bad as far as places go, and I can think of a few other big-name chains which would be even scarier to stay in right about now. The Sahara may have eschewed its Rat Pack image (an anachronism whose time, let's face it, has gone) in favor of the NASCAR crowd, who aren't exactly as picky or saddled with as many delusions of elegance, but it's no Ellis Island Casino or Buffalo Bill's.
And the NASCAR element is almost a welcome touch for me -- I've seen so many mustaches in this joint I feel like I'm back in at least Connecticut.
A MOST DELIGHTFUL MEAL.
A HELPFUL HINT.