Wretched Excess

Burger at Las Vegas’s Heart Attack Grill

I have mentioned the Heart Attack Grill in Las Vegas recently. Today, I called my friend Bill Korn, who was marveling at the menu of the place. Granted that Vegas is no stranger to wretched excess, but the Heart Attack Grill draws people to it who should—if they value their lives—be more careful about what they eat.

On Monday, Presidents’ Day, I was shocked to see the place full. Customers were chowing down on mountains of sugars and fats wearing hospital gowns and sitting in wheelchairs, being served by sexy waitresses in full nursing garb. It is a known fact that at least two customers have died at their tables from meals they should have avoided.

Standing outside on a cold and windy day, I shook my head and wondered what has happened to the American people.

Look, Guys, those nurse/waitresses are awfully cute, but they won’t accompany you to Valhalla or wherever it is that people who make bad decisions about their lives go.

There is something about Vegas that seems to cater to the worst side of the American id. Technically, sex for hire is against the law in Clark County (but not in nearby Pahrump and other rural towns in Nevada). But there’s nothing illegal about giving you obscene amounts of food.

Sometimes I think one gets more out of Vegas by observing than by participating. Come to think of it, we didn’t do any gambling, either.

For Chocoholics Only

The Ethel M Cactus Garden

During the whole two years of the pandemic, I had difficulty convincing Martine to take any road trips with me (except for one day trip to Santa Barbara last June). I was interested in going to Las Vegas as I had read a couple of books about the Mafia control of the casinos in the 1970s and the early 1980s. But there was one argument I had which changed her mind: We would visit the Ethel M Chocolate Factory in Henderson, NV, just off the highway to the Boulder Dam.

That did the trick. I have eaten some scrumptious chocolate in my time, but none better than the candies produced by Ethel M. The “M” stands for Mars, the company which also produces M&Ms and is allied with Wrigley. As I understand it, Ethel Mars was the mother of the founders of the Mars candy empire, and the Ethel M Company is a subsidiary dedicated to her memory.

Martine at Ethel M’s Wall of Chocolates

It is fun to visit to factory—not only for the world class chocolates and the free yummy samples—but also for the extensive cactus garden which is maintained by the company.

This was perhaps our third visit to the Ethel M factory, and hopefully not our last.

Electrifying

That’s a strange picture of me, sitting in the electric chair at the Mob Museum in Las Vegas. You may recall I wrote about the museum a couple weeks back (click here). Martine and I visited it last Tuesday and spent all day walking its three floors of organized skulduggery.

Little did I know when I sat down on the electric chair that my head size (normally I wear a size 7½ hat) would shrink by half. Now, instead of a hat, I go around wearing a thimble on my head. There was also a gas chamber chair, but I resolved not to sit in it lest my head size would shrink even further.

I thought that the museum would concentrate on crime in Las Vegas, but it actually covered the whole spectrum, concentrating particularly on the Mafia, but also including such figures as John Dillinger and Machine Gun Kelly.

We liked the museum so much that we think it is one of the best historical oriented museums we have ever visited. It ranks right up there with the three Presidential Libraries Martine and I have seen (Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and John F. Kennedy).

America as Seen from the “Fremont Experience”

The Fremont Experience at Night

I fully expected that our trip to Las Vegas last week would make for some great people watching. That it did, in spades. We were in the downtown area at the Plaza Hotel, which is at the west end of Fremont Street and of the four-block Fremont Experience. Even though we were in town on a Monday through Thursday after a three-day weekend, the Fremont Experience was crowded. I attribute this partly to the cold temperatures and biting winds, which made the enclosed space a particularly desirable destination.

Here’s what I noticed about the tourists in downtown Vegas:

  1. Most of the tourists were obese. Those who were proud of their fat congregated in large numbers at the Heart Attack Café, where they sat in wheelchairs wearing hospital gowns and being waited upon by sexy “nurses.” By the way, the restaurants went in for quantity more than quality of food.
  2. Among the men, a large percentage had beards and frequently extensive tattoos—and not a Maori in sight!
  3. Many of the older tourists (and some of the younger ones) were in fancy motorized wheelchairs. Some of these disabled visitors (or did they just get tired of walking any more?) were grotesquely obese.
  4. It seemed to be de rigeur for most of the males and some of the women to be always clutching super-sized cocktails as they walked around. In fact, I was surprised how much drinking was going on at all times.
  5. Very few tourists were to be seen even one block north or south of the Fremont Experience. Martine, who did not like the Experience, was happy to walk around it to get to our destinations.
  6. There was loud pop music everywhere, mostly of the “Wall of Sound” variety, which gets on one’s nerves after a while.

Probably the tourists we saw were not representative of most Americans. If they were, I think I would feel even more isolated than I usually do.

Fortunately, Martine and I enjoyed ourselves even though we were not obese lushes tattooed liked escapees from a carnival.

The Long Way Back

Back in the mid-1990s, Martine worked as a civilian employee at the Twentynine Palms Marine Air Ground Combat Center in the Yucca Valley. I remember when I picked her up there shortly after the 1995 Oklahoma City terrorist bombing and went with her through back roads in the Mohave Desert to Las Vegas.

On Monday as we were driving to Vegas on Interstate 15, Martine wondered how far we were from Twentynine Palms and expressed interest in seeing it again. So on the way back, I took the same route through the Mohave. Going southwest from Vegas, we took the I-15 south, got off on the Nipton exit and after several miles, turned right onto what was posted as Cima Road. From there, we turned onto the Morningstar Mine Road and took it until it ended at Kelso. There, we turned left onto Kelbaker Road headed south to Amboy. That ended on the old Route 66, the so-called National Trails Highway. Turning right, we drove several miles to Amboy, site of the Bristol Dry Lake, which is mined by National Chloride. After Bristol, we crossed the railroad tracks and turned left on Amboy Road, which took us into Twentynine Palms.

Road Map of the Mohave National Preserve

This route was picturesque, especially with the Joshua Trees along Morningstar Mine Road and the huge Kelso Dunes, but it added over a hundred miles to our trip back, and had me driving to L.A. on Interstate 10 during evening rush hour.

It was worth it, however. Martine got a chance to see how Twentynine Palms had changed over the years. In short, it was more populous, but still looked pretty much the same.

Martine Reminiscing with USMC Flag

I realize I haven’t said anything about Las Vegas yet. So I’m going backward. Stay tuned for more details about our trip, which will appear in the usual helter skelter order.

The Little White Chapel

This is my last posting until I return from Las Vegas, probably on Thursday. I will leave you with a poem by Brenda McGrath entitled “Little White Chapel”:

Little White Chapel

When my husband and I were in Las Vegas, I had a great suggestion,
To go to the Little White Chapel, and renew our vows in celebration.
I thought it would be such a lark we wouldn’t forget.
Having Elvis perform the ceremony would be the best thing yet!

However we never made it to the chapel, he refused.
To do such a silly thing did not leave him amused.
Maybe that was an indication of what was to come.
Divorce ensued, and sorrow beat its drum.

I want to go to the Little White Chapel with a new man.
We would have so much fun before our life began!
We could play a slot machine on our way out.
Then we would be man and wife with a payout!

When the Outfit Controlled Vegas

One of the places on our upcoming Vegas trip that I am most eager to see is the Mob Museum, more fully known as the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, much of Las Vegas was controlled by “The Outfit,” also known as the Mafia. Probably the best introduction to that history is Michael Scorsese’s film Casino (1995), starring Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Sharon Stone. It in turn was based on Nicholas Pileggi’s Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas, which I read with pleasure. There is also an excellent work of reportage by Dennis N. Griffin which goes over the same territory, but with more of a law enforcement point of view. The book that I read was titles The Battle for Las Vegas: The Law vs. the Mob.

All three sources follow the story of Lefty Rosenthal (called Ace Rothstein in the Scorsese film) and Tony “The Ant” Spilotro (Nicky Santoro in the movie). It took years to bring down the mob. In 1986, Tony Spilotro and his brother Michael were murdered by the mob bosses, who were tired of all the attention that was being focused on them, and buried in a Midwestern cornfield. According to some sources, they were first beaten and buried alive.

Since the mob days, Vegas has been Disneyfied. Big time real estate developers moved in and made it into a family destination—though there are still pockets of naughtiness around the edges.

Viva Las Vegas

A Christmas tree is shown on Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas on Dec. 12, 2017. CREDIT: Bill Hughes/Las Vegas News Bureau

In a little more than a week, Martine and I are going to Las Vegas for a few days. We have no intention of gambling, as we both feel that is tantamount to throwing money down the drain. For me, what Las Vegas stands for is a kind of Petri dish of American Culture, emphasizing what Americans find pleasurable. In fact, I see it as the American equivalent of Pleasure Island from Pinocchio, where little boys go to be turned into jackasses.

Think about it: food, gambling, sex, sports, lavish entertainment—all the things that float the boats of typical Americans. It is probably one of the best places in this country for people watching. Just take the Heart Attack Grill, for example:

The Heart Attack Grill on Fremont Street in Downtown Las Vegas is a truly unique restaurant, where gluttony and obesity reigns supreme. Where else can you go to eat a 9,982 calorie burger, served by a buxom waitress dressed as a nurse, listen to karaoke, and wash it back with a shot of liquor served in a prescription bottle?

As the sign says, diners weighing in over 350 pounds (159 kilograms) eat for free.

I doubt that even Imperial Rome had nothing that could compare with that. I can see myself looking for an unobtrusive place to sit down and wait for things to happen so that I can photograph them.

On previous visits, Martine and I confined ourselves to the Strip on Las Vegas Boulevard. This time, we’ll be in downtown Las Vegas, near the center of the action on Fremont Street. Needless to say, I’m looking forward to the trip.

A Lemming Named Desire

Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal and Wife Geri

If you’ve seen Martin Scorsese’s film Casino about the mob days in Las Vegas, you’ve seen Sharon Stone in the role of Ginger McKenna as well as Robert DeNiro as Sam “Ace” Rothstein. Throughout the film, names were changed to protect both the innocent and the guilty. The actual characters were named Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal and Geri McGee Rosenthal.

Between 1976 and 1983, Rosenthal was in charge of four casinos that were secretly skimming profits to Chicago and other Midwestern mobsters. As a nationally known sports bettor, he had in 1969 married a Vegas showgirl named Geri McGee.

Vegas Showgirl Geri McGee

Geri was one of those tall, lovely showgirls for whom most men would sell their souls. Not that Lefty had not sold his soul early on, but hooking up with Geri turned out to be a nightmare. Although Lefty and Geri had two children together, Geri started taking drugs and having a not-well-hidden affair with mob enforcer Tony “The Ant” Spilotro (played by Joe Pesci in the film).

As her marriage began to implode, Geri had a very open break with her family and took thousands in cash and jewelry that Lefty had in a joint safe deposit box to prove his trust in Geri. She left for Los Angeles and was dead within months of a drug overdose. Lefty, meanwhile, was the victim of a car bomb, which, fortunately for him, he escaped without major injury. But shortly after that, he was finished in Vegas and moved on to Laguna Niguel, California, and then Boca Raton, Florida, where he died in 2008.

Sharon Stone in the Role of Geri

As men, most of us dream of falling for a long-stemmed beauty like Geri McGee, but it rarely ends well. There’s something about the whole mechanism of sexual desire which seems to militate against long-term happiness.