My strategy is sound, my goals well defined, but my focus is suddenly lacking: I’m unhinged, and it’s the Russian’s fault.
I’m playing blackjack at the Tropicana — end of the trail for quarter slot aficionados, shrine for cane-steadied pilgrims with new hips and portable oxygen concentrators, longing for a taste of lost youth, and a hint of the old, Mob Vegas. The eroded palace plays its role, but there’s no Mob to be found here. Perhaps the remains of bent-nosed thugs lie buried beneath the pool, but nothing surfaces as cash-strapped Angelinos dog paddle to the swim-up bar to guzzle another thin margarita.
I’m sitting at a table in the casino, and things are going well. I have plenty of chances to split, to double with abandon. I score with most of my opportunities; I win more than my share when I hold a 17 or 18, and the dealer busts. I’m on a roll that tempts me to forget how much money I’ve lost to Vegas vultures over the years, and to ignore the near certainty that I’ll lose my bankroll during future visits to this avaricious cash trap plopped in the Nevada wasteland.
Today, though, things are working in my favor — until the Russian arrives.
More accurately, the Russian, his Russian girlfriend, and her remarkable Russian breasts.
Her sunburned Russian breasts.
Had this duo proceeded to a hotel worthy of the dominant male’s bank account, keeping their distance from this dilapidated hole, I could continue to float on a raft of chips. But, no: they’re here, at the Trop. And, now, we’re together at a table with a silent Chinese woman, likely tempered in Macau, who plays deftly, a breathtaking number of black chips arrayed neatly in front of her, and a tractor salesman from Iowa, here on his first trip to what he repeatedly calls “Sin City.” Fortunately, the wannabe sinner sits out the majority of hands. With the lull in business this time of day, the pit boss lets the pinhead from the prairie get away with it.
The Russian woman, (let’s call her Natasha, shall we?), is a hyper-comely, Eastern European fawn. She’s wearing the latest in post-Glasnost, hands-in-the-air-for-the-oligarchy, “let ‘em have a look at those beauties,” fashion.
A sparse cloud cover hangs perilously low on Natasha’s Urals. And, that’s not all: the blouse features an Isinglass panel at its center – a rectilinear, window opening to a Slavic wonderland, a mammarial miracle not unlike a cherished relic on display in an alcove in an Orthodox church. Made in Volgograd, for your viewing pleasure.
Natasha also flashes slightly off kilter Russian teeth. There’s something irresistible about that Slavic bite, born of a helix transformed when Swedish Vikings first tapped the sisters of the Steppes more than a millennium ago.
But, dear lord: her breasts.
Then, there’s Boris: neck the same width as his basketball-sized, shaved head, scar at the downturned corner of a mouth featuring several stainless steel implants. If I were to paint a portrait of Khrushchev’s deranged grandson, I would use Boris as my model.
Boris doesn’t know what he’s doing; he plays as if he scanned a Cyrillic “How To” booklet in the cab during the trip from the airport to the casino. I want to shout: “You split aces and eights, Boris, always. Think, man, think! You never hit a 19, Boris. Never! Stop! Leave!”
Normally, a goon like Boris provides an experienced player with a sign that it’s time to stand up, gather the goods, and exit the table. Boris is screwing up the flow, interrupting the Chi, if you will. And, for want of any better explanation of why I am doing so well at a ten-dollar minimum table at The Trop late in the afternoon, unfucked Chi will suffice.
Boris fucks up the Chi; I have no doubt he’s fucked up Chi ever since he was released from a juvenile correctional facility in Leninsk-Kuznetsky, having served his time for random brutality and ill-directed hooliganism. Fucking up Chi on behalf of corrupt oil barons then put serious cash in his Swiss account, and Boris is making the most of it, with Natasha, and her Window on the World.
I realize immediately after the duo sits down that I should back away. The Chinese matron takes the hint, collects her chips, and she’s gone. But, Natasha’s breasts – creamy, rose-blushed, gravity-defying globes of flesh, fat, and glands — press me to my chair.
To compound the problem, an hour earlier, I limited my ability to concentrate as Ronnie and I smoked a couple joints of thermonuclear weed while seated on the balcony of his pool-view room, the squeals of intoxicated, barely literate college coeds providing a sound track as they frolicked in the water below.
It took the two of us a while to remember how to get to the ground floor of the hotel, and as soon as we successfully negotiated the staff-only stairways and halls at the back of the building, Ronnie disappeared in search of a meatball sandwich. I’m left in the casino, playing blackjack, pounding down one weak gin and tonic after another, the libations delivered by my grandmother, were grandma squeezed into in a tatty short skirt and a soiled, threadbare corset, her lipstick slightly smeared, eyes darkly lidded, breath reeking of onions, cheap cheese and cigarette smoke, her fingernails bitten to the quicks. If granny was a cocktail waitress at the Trop.
In short: add Natasha to this mix, and I short.
My IQ reduced by high-grade weed and low-grade gin, hypnotized by the subtly quivering display three chairs to my left, I forget to review my rules: 1) Don’t sit down at a table with money I can’t afford to lose; 2) take a set amount of cash to the table; 3) if I win the same amount of cash I bring to the fray, get up and leave (one form of the Gambler’s Fallacy is that, because things go well, they will continue to go well); 4) if I lose the money I bring to the table, stand up and walk away — do not chase the ghost, (another form of the Gambler’s Fallacy is that, when things go poorly, the tide will soon turn); and, 5) for god’s sake, man: pay attention!
My sidelong glances in the direction of the unblemished, sun-tinted distractions three seats to my left are difficult to detect. Had Natasha perched one seat closer on my left, just this side of the key degree in the arc of the table, the Isinglass panel would have revealed nothing, unless I leaned out over the felt, mouth open, eyes wide. Like the guy from Iowa — the leering doofus who finally enrages Boris. Without warning, Boris hits the corn fed, would-be libertine twice on the side of the head with a meaty fist Bap, bap! Boris chortles; Tractor Boy whimpers, and collapses to the floor. The victim is pulled to his feet, bleeding, and barely conscious, as a bellowing (in Russian) Boris is hustled from the casino by security personnel, Natasha and her assets skittering behind on stiletto heels, struggling to keep up with the bum’s rush of her brutish meal ticket.
I look to the chips on the table in front of me. Rather, I look to the empty spot where four tidy towers sat thirty minutes before I took my trip to the hills. The Russian nymph blinded me, and I had shoved out chips with no idea of what was taking place with the cards.
At this juncture, I regain my senses, and obey the second most important of my rules: I do not pull cash from my pocket, and begin betting wildly, desperately pursuing the lost money now on its way to the counting room, and from there, into the Trop’s new carpet fund. No, I walk away. More important considerations replace thoughts of the enchanting Russian icon: what to eat and drink, and where to find it?
While gaming maintains a grip on me (though it loosens as I age), it has little power when compared to the promise of food, and intoxication. There is no game of chance I will not abandon if invited to savor an excellent meal, and enjoy choice beverages. With this in mind, Vegas seems a desirable place to be on this day. But, I need something better than another weak gin and tonic delivered by grandma.
I require food and drink, and I want company. I search for Ronnie, and I find him hunkered in front of a high-stakes slot, surrounded by a trio of middle-aged married women from suburban San Diego. The scent of White Shoulders permeates the atmosphere near the machine. The gals are thrilled with their new friend; female company always thrills Ronnie. Each member of the posse grasps a tall, vase-like glass containing a Prussian blue liquid, and a squiggly straw that plunges into the gruesome depths. The gals ask Ronnie if they can buy him another. Well, of course they can.
“These are great,” Ronnie says, thrusting his glass in front of my face. “Kendra, Jeannie, and Phyllis treated me to three of them so far. I think there’s something like tequila in the drink, maybe vodka, with an off taste. We’re having a great time, and I’ve taught these ladies how to win in the high stakes slot parlor. So far, we’re up more than a grand.”
The gals laugh, teeter, and flag down Grandma. Kendra asks if she can buy one of the house specials for me, but I decline. I have my mind set on Barolo, or a northern Rhone, not “something like tequila.”
“After we win another grand or so,” says Ronnie, adjusting the squiggly straw in his cocktail, “the ladies and I are going up to the room, for a treat on the veranda.” There is a Prussian blue stain on the front of Ronnie’s Hawaiian shirt, his eyes are bloodshot; the gals giggle, reel, and sip their fluids. This is, to quote Jeannie, “the very best girlfriend weekend, ever!”
Ronnie pulls the handle on the beast as I walk away, and another two hundred bucks worth of tokens clatter into the tray.
Ronnie wouldn’t be much use in the best of circumstances: he was raised in Albuquerque, and if the subject is Hatch chile, red or green, and its many applications, he is a master. Mention a trip to a fine restaurant, and he generally backs off, preferring, instead, the bulk of the buffet. Ronnie is best left with the coven, readying for an intoxicated team trek to his veranda. If they can locate it.
The answer: Marion — Tennessee born, New Orleans seasoned.
But, where to find him? I last saw him as we downed Irish Coffees at 8 a.m. at the small cafe at the side of the casino — bracing ourselves for upcoming activities with a dose of the poor man’s speedball. I know he likes to bet the horses, so I check the Sports Book. He’s not there. Marion’s a bank president, so where would a banker be? I check the cage at the casino, thinking he might be discussing the fed rate with a cashier. No.
I consider the other members of our, “let’s go to Vegas” group. Prospects are not bright with these fellows: we’ve traveled here many times over the years, and their habits and patterns are set, rarely admitting trips to great restaurants.
Mike? No, it’s too late in the afternoon. He’s been drinking Big Gulp loads of bourbon since early morning, and moved past what we call his “Wahoo! Zone,” so he’s face down, passed out in his room, and he won’t be ready for action until 10 p.m.
Jay? No. He’s off on a tour of the pools at Mandalay Bay and MGM Grand, scouting options for what he hopes will be an evening of unbridled lust, free of attachment. Unbridled lust with no consequences is but a thing of his dreams, but an admirable enthusiasm pushes him on. He is handsome, after all.
Jack? No. Jack started playing craps at 6 a.m., and won’t take a lengthy break until after midnight. He gnaws at stale sandwiches as he stands at the rail. The man comes here for one purpose only, and he is doggedly persistent.
So, I’m it.
This is not an undesirable option, since dining alone has its charms: I don’t have to listen to, or tell stories for the hundredth time; there’s no need to compromise regarding a destination; full attention can be given to what arrives on a plate, and in a glass; I can fart whenever I want, and the wait person must stagger through the vapor, his or her tip hanging in the balance.
I go to my room (once I find the room) in order to shower, and change for dinner. Before I dress, I recline on the bed, and turn on the TV. I tune to a local, all-access channel, and — what a world! — I find a panel discussion, and the topic is … breasts.
This is a clear example of Jungian acausal parallelism. If I kept a diary, this would prompt a key entry: “Today, I experienced acausal parallelism, at the Tropicana, of all places, and I was not wearing pants!”
I brace myself for a tidal wave of mind-expanding information.
Instead, the moderator and two panelists deliver a load of simplistic, head butting bullshit.
On one side of the topical divide, a Strip shill — the clown as shiny as a new Lamborghini parked in the valet lot at Wynn; a prole in a cheap suit whose mission is to convince all who will listen that the paper-thin shroud of entertainment stretched over a money-hungry greed-beast, promises more than debt and despair to visitors. (Incidentally, when the Lamborghini’s ignition is switched on, the car is far smarter than this fellow).
At the other pole on the spectrum: a clumsily-shorn professor from the Women’s Studies department at UNLV, wearing Keds replica high tops, and faded jeans torn at the knees, the sleeves of her plaid wool shirt rolled up to the elbows. Prof teaches a course titled “Feminist Praxis.” She begins a ballet of eye rolls as the shill is introduced.
Between these mental giants sits the moderator: an emaciated, balding dork with a pencil-thin mustache, wearing a clip-on tie and a checked sport coat he purchased at Goodwill.
The prof is pissed off, eager to unpack and inspect the full array of psychological, social, and economic damages done whenever the female breast is put on display in one the few remaining Vegas shows that feature nudity.
In a nutshell: the shows are abhorrent spectacles, during which pea-brained, intoxicated men slobber as they leer at tall women wearing little else but teensy g-strings and feathered headdresses as they dance to Broadway show tunes — a grotesque event orchestrated for subhuman males who fixate on the women’s breasts, thus reinforcing norms and practices that, throughout history, have contributed to the suppression of women, nourished the debasement of the female, and supported a culture of rape and domestic violence.
The shill’s response? The Vegas nude “show girl” is a “tradition.” People these days have no respect for tradition. If we could admit minors to the shows, they’d learn a valuable lesson, and have a story to tell their grandkids! No one forces these “girls” to work in a show; they’re proud of their bodies; they take good care of themselves, eat low-carb diets, do Bikram yoga, and take online classes in business administration provided by the very university that employs the prof. In other words, they take part in a tradition in order to pay the prof’s salary.
So it goes, back and forth, the shill losing ground with each vacuous utterance, the prof’s eyeballs rolling so often, and so violently, I wait for them to pop out of her head.
It is when the prof mentions a pressing need for, “enlightened women, and their feminist male supporters to desexualize the breast, so that a woman’s breast has no more sexual import than the breast of a man,” that I stop picking my nose, and pay closer attention to what is said.
It is at this point that I realize I want to have my own dialogue with the prof, in my digs at the Trop (room service), after she is patted down for weapons.
I get it, prof: I get why the bare breasts in the show, and the slobbering goofballs, trouble you. But, there are two things I need to get off my chest.
The first concerns your claim of “feminist male supporters.”
I once taught classes at a typical American college, and spent time on campus mingling with sensitive progressives, and other culturally superior beings. I mingled well; I knew male faculty members who were “feminists,” and “supporters.” They divided cleanly into two camps: the first comprising cowards — meat puppets seeking a tenure track in a department whose chair was a woman, or jellified fuckfaces afraid of having female colleagues and students yell at them; the second camp comprising guys who thought declaring an identity as a “feminist” put them on a fast track to a blowjob.
Things have not changed much with males since then, prof, no matter what you want to believe; this kind of change takes a lot more time than you’ve got. Most of the tendencies and practices you (justifiably) find offensive and unacceptable have a sociobiological source; they’ve been cemented by genes in psyches and practices for a quarter million years. That’s a difficult clot to excise. In truth, the only thoroughly “feminist” males are outliers, desperate for company at the coffee shop, and membership in a book club.
The second thing I need to get off my chest? Let’s examine the implication that any non nursing-related attention to the breast equates to negative sexualization.
I believe you are correct, prof, about rampant, common sexualization. I say this because I have a long history with the seamy, soiled side of life — as a journalist, a flaneur, a boulevardier.
I have a deep acquaintance with the many aspects of misogyny, with pornography, and the sex industry in general — a far more extensive history and intimate knowledge than you, prof. I know this is difficult for you to believe, but trust me.
Once, some time back, I sat often with owners and managers of “adult” establishments, observing the sad traffic of fools addicted to pornographic magazines and films that render a woman little more than an object on which to direct a Pleistocene male’s spasmodic thrashings, her body functioning as little more than a target for ejaculate. I observed massage parlor and outcall operations; I knew, conversed with, and interviewed club owners and performers, whores, vice cops, pimps and madams. A legion of them.
On too many occasions, I watched testosterone addled males succumb to their illusions, teased for cash at “Gentlemen’s Clubs” by lazily writhing nude “dancers,” the disinterested women later forced to share their loot with psychopathic male overlords. These dens, regardless of veneer, were and are called “titty bars” by their customers; they were and are depressing, fetid sanctuaries frequented by microcephalic members of an ignorant order, devotees who require the debasement of women to momentarily inflate a shriveled ego and color an otherwise drab existence. This kind of sexualization of the breast (and, in fact, of the female body, and the gender itself) is noxious and does great harm. It is a token of a type of thought and behavior nearly every heterosexual or bisexual male absorbs and indulges to some extent, from the time he is a 3-year-old bed wetter, even if he’s born and raised a Mormon. It is a tough garment to shed, once worn.
Here, prof, I am with you: these ways of thinking and behaving must be shed, and not passed on. This is a jones that must die off, as soon as possible. But, it isn’t going to be soon enough for you; you’ll be long gone before any real and substantial adjustments are made.
But, here is where we might part ways: I see a difference between supporting the damaging sexualization of a body part and its bearers via participation in a long-standing system of subversion, and an appreciation of eroticism, with its legitimate, and I would say necessary, place in a meaningful aesthetic.
A gulf exists between an adolescent (aged 12 to 65) male’s need to dominate, demean, and ejaculate, and a thoughtful indulgence of eroticism— in this case as it takes account of the female breast in its many, wonderful forms, acknowledging the breast’s ramified roles, including the pursuit and attainment of pleasure by any and all parties involved. This is an aesthetic exercise shared, and enjoyed, by some men, and by many women. Probably you, prof, if I reckon correctly.
Consider, for example, the shape, curve, and weight of the female breast in its myriad manifestations, each beautiful in form. Contemplate the lure of the aureola, first impressed upon the newborn, the blush of that comforting, pigmented beacon signaling the possibility of nourishment and satiation, the erect nipple first promising life, then, in later circumstances, providing a clue to interest and arousal; admire the profile of a breast as its bearer bends before a window, silhouetted by early morning light. Think of the breast’s softness, its smoothness the companion to the skin on the neck just below the ear when touched by lips and fingers, the skin at the notch of the clavicle, inside the elbow or wrist, at the back of the knee, on the inner thigh at it’s very top part, just before it joins the torso. That a male would find the breast erotic in this way, that a woman would do the same, is a sign of cultivation of taste, and an appreciation of sensual being, not of a need to subdue or suppress. Here there is no brute’s focus on a “titty” attached to a nameless, dehumanized object; this is a complex appreciation of something distinctively female, an instance in a practice that seeks aesthetic satisfaction, perhaps repeatable mutual pleasure, never a momentary, detached release.
So it was with my appreciation of Natasha. Never did I envision a juvenile, porn-cast coupling with the Russian beauty, the two of us in a motel room, her perfunctory moans echoing off bare walls as empty beer bottles clatter, then crash to the linoleum from the bedside stand. No, I was captured by shape, color, the suggestion of curve, of weight as might be hefted gently by hand, by the intimation of something ineluctable, warm, smooth and scented, cell-deep familiar. This was eroticism, not Pleistocene prurience. It was, for this old man, a key that unlocks a cabinet of ideas, and memories.
But, then again, perhaps all my high-falutin’ jabber is little more than a thesaurus-inflated excuse for staring at women’s breasts. How would I know? I’m hungry, and my blood sugar level has plummeted.
So, now, where and what to eat? I consider the Lobster in Corals at Restaurant Guy Savoy, the tasting menu at Picasso, a bone-in rib eye at Mastro’s (though I have a sentimental allegiance to the flagship, in Beverly Hills), the sole meuniere at L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon (a ten-minute walk from the Trop), a trip to Chengdu Taste, on Schiff Drive (it requires cab fare). These are pre-Russian options, however. Post-Russian, it’s Bouchon. I’ve dined at Bouchon many times, and was pleased at every visit. And, despite my miserable performance at the tables, Bouchon remains affordable.
I throw on my clothes, smooth the wrinkles in shirt and pants as best I can, and stroll to the Venetian in the early evening heat, steering clear of the handbill flapping hustlers, and the barkers touting dollar hot dogs with the purchase of a beer.
I enter The Venetian, swerve to the right in the lobby, and head for the Venezia Tower elevator. Marion slumps in a chair in the hallway, an empty Old Fashioned glass in his hand, shirttail askew.
“I thought you might show up here sooner or later,” he says. “I met Ronnie, and he said you were heading out to eat. I guessed right. I’ve been here for a while, and drank four Negronis while I waited, so I might need some help getting to the restaurant. The Negroni is an excellent aperitif, don’t you think?”
My New Orleans man.
As always, Bouchon does the trick. Marion and I have dined here together in the past; we are familiar with the offerings, we know the drill, we get to work.
With two of us pulling the money wagon, we start with a dozen oysters, and with rillettes, fashioned with fresh and smoked salmon.
We cleanse palates between oyster and salmon treats with Sancerre, then split an order of pâté de campagne, parking pork on crusty bread with fresh, unsalted butter, easing its way down the pipe with pinot noir.
From there, it’s straight to the big guns, in preparation for day’s end, a bloated waddle through the throng, back to the Trop, perhaps more blackjack before we retire.
Marion opts for roasted leg of lamb with mushrooms, garlic cream, and red rice, and another glass or two of pinot.
Me? I select the evening’s special. With lots of syrah.
The special? An erotic interlude.
Breast of veal.
Acausal parallelism. With wine.