While teaching has its perks, plush business trips aren’t among them. Neither is an air-conditioned workplace, for that matter. But at least summer is over, so it’s been a while since I’ve had to push a steaming crowd out of the way to gently slap the clammy face of a floppy, fainted human – collapsed into an awkward pretzel on the floor – one foot still caught in her desk.
But let’s get back to all-expenses-paid, on-the-company-dime, business travel. Mmmm… Sounds nice.
People who get to travel for work complain about it, but I don’t see ’em crying up there beyond the curtains, sippin’ whiskey in their first-class arm chairs, and stretching their smug legs in their snug threads. No sir. They can take those vacation days I’m using to see my crazy uncle in Missouri, packed away in the back of one of those slave-ships they call a coach cabin, and I’ll take their two day jaunt to Chicago to wine and dine that client at Ditka’s and then kick back with a high-class hooker at the Hilton, just to take the edge off.
Point is, I like “free”. And I like “travel”. So free travel seems like a no-lose formula to me. I know, I know. You’re thinking, “But Pistol, you hate ‘business’ and and you hate ‘work’.” True, but I’m sure I could get around that somehow.
But until I figure out how to do that, I will have to be satisfied with the once in a lifetime opportunity to take a “business trip” as a teacher that graced me last year. No, not one of those trips with a bunch of bratty kids holding permission slips and hidden alcohol in tow. No thanks. And not one of those of training summits, listening to a bunch of blowhards spout off about how they achieved the impossible as a miracle teacher and there’s no reason the rest of us can’t too. They would still be in the wretched trenches too, they would assure us, bandaging up those muddied and bloodied minds, if they weren’t making so much money telling us how to do it. No, they stopped teaching right after they published their best-seller, 39 Steps into the Urban-Adolescent Soul. Well, no thanks to that either.
It took something more to get me to sign on.
It warn’t no field trip and it warn’t no pedagogical chunder. No sir, the head of security offered two deans the exclusive opportunity to fly to Vegas for 2 days and 3 nights to attend….
…The 2008 National Gang Conference.
Upon completion, we would even receive a certificate to certify our training in “gang trends, investigations, and identification”.
So one December morning, instead of getting off the train at school, I rode right past it all the way to the airport, just like those French tourists with their big red suitcases do.
By lunch time, instead of being in an urban jungle, I was in an ancient desert, and I started to feel a delicate ripple in some distant primal nerve. I was like a research chimp who had escaped from the lab.
As we drove from the airport towards town, solar-infused rock formations careened in every direction in pure silence. That’s what I wanted. Let me out here, I thought, on one of those mountains in the sun. But, no. I had a swinginger destination in store: The Old Strip.
We would lay our heads at one of the original Vegas hotels, The Riveria. It’s what they respectfully described in the film Swingers as “Old School” until they arrived and realized just how old school it really was. And wheeling my bag across the ragged, smoky casino floor, through the muted electric flutter of the dealers and slots, I felt like I’d stumbled into one of Dean Martin’s lungs, near the End.
Luckily, my free room was in the Monaco tower of the the Riviera, where I could “admire the artistic flair that creates an inviting ambiance”, as they describe it on their website.
While working, one could “have a seat at your desk accompanied by the beautiful marble surface to rest your laptop”.
And finally, after a tough day of gang trends and investigations training, I could “luxuriate in the chrome-accented marble bath. Revitalize with recognizable brand-named bath and body products from your favorite mall”.
Okay so this may not have been the Chicago Hilton, but history lived inside these walls.
The Riveria opened in 1955 as the very first high-rise on the Las Vegas strip. Liberace himself was the headliner that day and for many fabulous and bedazzling years to come. In 1960, the original Ocean’s Eleven was filmed there, starring Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, and the rest of the Rat Pack clan.
However, my visit coincided with, not just a different era, but an era in the latter stages of decomposition – decrepit and senile. The ghosts of the Hollywood Golden Era now shared these rotting halls with with their decidedly less glamorous descendants, who either didn’t know any better or couldn’t afford any better, as well as with a bunch of fat cops and a couple confused high school teachers, here for some kind of National Gang Conference.
A couple of the famous long-running shows of the Riviera were still breathing (barely) at the time of my visit, such as An Evening at La Cage, featuring Frank Marino and his famous Joan Rivers impersonation, as well as the topless show Crazy Girls, whose performers (including deceased transgender showgirl Jahna Steele) have been immortalized outside the casino by a bronze statue of their buttocks – rubbed to a permanent shine by passing pedestrians. And last but not least, Barbra and Frank: The Concert That Never Was.
The first night we arrived, we met up with this other other staff member from our school who was coincidentally using a couple sick days to come to Vegas and gamble. I didn’t really know the guy, nor do I really know hardly any of the couple hundred teachers at my school, but apparently he is kind of a high-roller and gets comped rooms and stuff (overtime pay can add up). So he showed us how he lives in Sin City, paying for drinks left and right, until the next morning when I crawled into the huge flourescent conference room feeling like Hunter S. Thompson covering a DEA summit, with the walls bending around my skull.
Now, I am not going to say the conference was the biggest scam ever perpetrated on the American tax-payer, because I was recently reading about Halliburton and their no-bid contracts under the Bush Administration, and I was like… damn. But I will say that I had a difficult time figuring out what I was supposed to be learning there.
It basically went like this:
There were two muscular chiefs of police at the far end of a huge hall showing photos on a big screen and talking a little bit about each one. Not lecturing, or teaching. Just talking.
“I know you cops like blood, so I made sure to include a lot of these body shots.”
(Oh yeah, I forgot to mention, about half the photos were of grotesque murder scenes.)
“Yep, this guy messed around with the wrong end of a shot gun. That’s where his head is supposed to be.”
(The other half were of members of various gangs holding up hand-signals, bottles of malt liquor and guns.)
“You see here, all the money and guns?”
“This picture here is my favorite of all the pictures. It really sums up what the gang culture is all about. Its very poignant. You see that cash in his hand, and the gun in the other?”
“Okay, look at this. They’re called gang babies. They get ’em started young and they’re indoctrinated by the time they’re in kindergarten. Here you see him throwing up signs and wearing the colors, and this little guy probably hasn’t even said his first word yet.”
“See this here. This graffiti is like a language and you have to be able to read the language. There are a lot of cryptic symbols, but they all have meaning. The Hispanic graffiti is more flowery and artistic. The African American gang graffiti is real to the point. This means they are looking for this guy and they want to kill him.”
“This here is Suge Knight, the successful hip-hop music producer who is also alleged to be heavily involved in the Bl00dz street gang.”
The photos and banter lasted about 45 minutes and then, unless I was going crazy, which I very well might have been by that point, they repeated exactly what they had just done. Seriously, like they picked up the needle and just put it back at the begining of the record.
Now maybe it just seemed like this is what was happening due to the fact that even trying to keep my eyes open made my brain feel like a one-armed man climbing a thousand foot cliff, when really something entirely different was occurring. I guess I’ll never know, and that’s the saddest part about substance abuse.
But then my boss verified my suspicions with a groan. Word was that a lot of the presenters had canceled, so they had to repeat the same thing over and over to fill up the two days. And it wasn’t exactly engrossing, complex material as you now know. But people were still sitting there, silently, looking at the exact same picture they saw a few minutes ago of a dude laying face down in a mess of coagulated blood, with the same terse commentary: “Drug Hit.”
It was bizarre.
My boss would grumble, “this is fockin bullshit” and take the occasional call from our school on the other side of the country to deal with some security issue or another that had arisen. I gauged him for how much he would care if I left. I mean, there was no point in staying.
“So… should we stay?” I said, as if I was really wrestling with the issue.
Typing in his Blackberry, he shrugged, “I don’ cayah. S’up to you. Whattya wanna do?” It sounded like he didn’t want to actually say that we could leave, but that he really didn’t care.
“I’m gonna go just take a break for a little while,” I said. “I’m going bonkers in here.”
But I never went back. I went bonkers in other places instead.
Somehow I found myself in the Hooters Casino. “Delightfully Tacky Yet Unrefined” is how they describe themselves.
Like most new gamblers, I set a losing limit for myself and then five minutes into my three day trip, having lost my limit and wondering in vain what else I could do in Vegas, I set another losing limit to see if I couldn’t win my money back.
My game was roulette. Man, that is a classy game of chance. Even its name is classy. “Roulette.” There’s just something about that silent, grand wheel of fate, and the direct handshake with the graceful laws of physics that it offers you. There’s something numinous about it, even at Hooters.
That night – my money all swept up – all three of us cabbed it to one of the hipper hotels and were waiting outside trying to get into one of the clubs, when goddamn Suge Knight walks right past us!
Yes, the Suge Knight from the conference, the alleged high-level Bl00dz street gang member and world-famous music producer. The Suge Knight who, as the story goes, held Vanilla Ice over a 15th story balcony by his ankles until he agreed to sign over half his album royalties. The Suge Knight who spent six years in prison. The Suge Knight who was with Tupac Shakur when he was gunned down… in Vegas. The Suge Knight who is commonly believed to be responsible for the murder of NYC hip-hop legend Biggie Smalls. The same Suge Knight whom was arrested a couple months before that very moment for beating his girlfriend while brandishing a knife on the streets of Vegas. The same Suge Knight whose girlfriend (scheduled to testify against him) would go missing right before his trial and would never be found again. The same Suge Knight who was cleared of those charges by Las Vegas prosecutors exactly two days after the very moment that he was standing in front of me.
“Check the red bandana”, my boss said, way too loudly for my taste.
He was huge, dressed comfortably, flanked by two mean-ass looking dudes and followed by an attractive woman who looked like she was chained and shackled, body and mind, to the man plodding in front of her.
I really wanted to go get my picture taken with him and ask if he was in town for the gang conference. It would have made a great addition to this blog post. But my body vetoed that idea, and I remained motionless.
On my red-eye flight straight back to work, I saw Andre Agassi. Yes, that Andre Agassi. The same Andre Agassi who won a bunch of tennis matches and then won a bunch more and then married Steffi Graf and now was sippin’ whiskey behind the first-class curtains in his snug threads. Probably on a business trip.