Fear and Loathing on a Family Vacation

August 23, 2008
Armed with a full bottle of sunscreen and a shield of firm morality, I felt prepared for the three-day vacation with my aunt Mary and her two kids, Edward and Jane. Our destination was the savage Sodom of the west: Las Vegas. Although I cringed at the idea of going to Vegas in the middle of the summer, I badly wanted to get away from my aunt’s Mac-mansion near L.A. and from the tyrannical nanny/housekeeper who sought to control every aspect of my life. Auntie Yang—at least that’s what the kids called her—had been a washed-out showgirl, gambler, rambler, cook, housekeeper, etc. An innately bitter woman, she treated me with contempt because, as a stranger, I was the perfect outlet for her expressed anger. But what I hated most about Auntie Yang was that she spoiled my cousins to extremes, treating them like little emperors. Not knowing the slightest about nutrition, she cooked unhealthy meals (full of fat and cholesterol) for the family day after day. No wonder my cousin Edward is overweight!

While I was excited by the fact I won’t be seeing Auntie Yang for three days, I knew the trip to Vegas would cost half my soul. After all, how can a latter-day hippie with Franciscan principles survive in a city oozing with excess? I contemplated this question as the tour bus sped down Highway 15. The scene on both sides of the road was that absolute bleakness—just dust blowing in the wind and road-kill left to fry in the sun.

A souvenir shop/diner rested half way between L.A. and Vegas; it was built out of an old boxcar belonging to the Pacific Railway. That was our only rest stop. Inside the shop, an abundance of postcards, mugs, t-shirts lined on the shelves, and surprisingly, the place also sold guns, knifes, and Confederate paraphernalia. After digging myself out of the twisting mazes of the souvenir shop, I found my two cousins by a soda machine drinking extra-large chocolate milkshakes.

“Edward, who bought this for you?” I asked.


“Do you know how much sugar they put in that thing? It’s bad for you!”

“Auntie Yang buys us milkshakes all the time,” he rebuked.

I was just plain scared for the kid because our family has a long history of diabetes.

When we finally arrived at the Venetian Hotel late in the afternoon, I was still groggy from my nap on the bus. The 100-degree weather in Vegas had put me into a horrible mood and I felt a suddenly urge to leash out a streams of curses. As soon as I walked into the grand lobby, I felt as if I had entered into a bad trip. On the gilded ceiling overhead, portraits of antipopes smirked with devilish eyes. No doubt they were admiring the anatomy of those naked cherubs flying between the painted clouds. Sick old perverts.

After checking in and putting away our luggage, we went down to “St. Mark’s Square” on the second floor to grab some dinner. The second floor of the Venetian contained an artificial canal, a dozen restaurants, and at least two-dozen stores—in short, it was the sort of Venice Shylock would have built if he had the money. After scanning around for a good place to eat, my Aunt Mary decided on the Zeffirino, an Italian restaurant with a wine list the size of a Bible. After consuming a serving of lobster cocktail and “authentic” pesto with pasta-and-shrimp, I nearly puked up everything. I then recalled an ancient Chinese fable about an old peasant who died after the king invited him to a fancy dinner party—the rich food undoubtedly killed him.

For the rest of the night, my cousins had a grand old time watching T.V. while I found some solace in listening to The Last Waltz on my i-pod while reflecting my failed spiritual quest out West. After having a miserable time at the Stanford Summer College Program and upon discovering the Bay Area had turned into a capitalist suburbia coated with Silicon, I left to stay with my aunt in L.A. I was further disillusioned by the grim realities of modern Los Angles, with its widening gap between the rich and poor. Just the day before, I saw families of immigrant workers wandering through the streets looking for jobs while we cruised down the street in our new Mercedes-Benz. Then, at the street corner, we passed by a bum who sang ballads and accompanied himself on a busted-up guitar. I gave the man some loose change before my aunt pulled me away. “God bless you,” he shouted. Too bad I had only quarters to spare.
Suddenly, Auntie Yang’s voice wandered into my head—she was muttering something about the stuff animals they sell at the Mirage Resort—“They sell white tigers at the gift shop. Only $75 each…they’re so cute, you have to buy one!”

I sighed. Gone was the innocence of 1976 when the Band played the Last Waltz while the crowd danced to the rhythm of the one-two-three. And the only thing left worthwhile listening to was the sound of slot machines.

On the second day, we slept till eleven because there was nothing to do that morning. After lunch at another fancy restaurant, my aunt decided we should go to the Mirage to see the white tiger zoo. My cousins, unaware of the 110-degree weather outside, excitedly rushed out of the door. They were greeted by a ruthless sun that had no sympathy for tourists.

Outside the Mirage exotic zoo, I suddenly felt a rush of unexplainable fear and loathing. I was simply sick of the excess of Las Vegas: I felt like a bomb really to explode. Then I had a nervous breakdown. It must have scared the hell out of the other tourists in line to see someone lose control of their frontal lobe. To avoid further embarrassment I ran into the hotel and lost myself in the crowd.
Almost dehydrated, I decided the first order of business is to get some water. Only one problem: I had no money on me. In Sin City, you are nothing without the greens. But I resorted to an old trick; I staggered into an ice cream shop and asked for some ice. The cashier, a young woman who hadn’t hardened into a Vegas monster yet, felt sorry for me and handed me a large cup of ice. Before I could tell her thank you, the next customer had already started rattling out his order.
As I sipped my ice water, I contemplated escaping from Vegas; most of my schemes were simply impractical because I didn’t have a car. Finally I came to the conclusion that I was stranded in the city for at least another day. So I did not resist when my aunt found me hiding between two shelves in an Ann Taylor store.
The same night, we went to the Wynn Hotel for its famous buffet dinner. Because I felt Vitamin C deprived after not eating healthy for several days, I had two bowls of salad and large amounts of fruits. As usual, my aunt and two cousins attacked their plates of seafood and dessert with relish. I kept quiet. After dinner, we returned to the Venetian to see the Las Vegas version of Phantom of the Opera.
Indeed, the show was everything the advertisements and programs claimed and then some. What can beat a show with flying chandeliers and fireworks on stage? With an electric organ that sounded like the thunder of Zeus and a life-size robotic elephant with a moving trunk! Yet half way into the show, my mind drifted back to Stanford where I was taking an acting class. I met an old stagehand who dated from the days of Monterey and Woodstock. Out of the blue, I asked him if the Winterland Auditorium was still around in San Francisco because that was where the Band played the Last Waltz. To my disappointment, he shook his head.
“You mean Bill Graham’s old place? No, they’d torn it down and built a high rise there. It must’ve been back in ’95 or so. What a shame.”
Then he went back to work, sweeping the stage with his mundane rhythm of one-two, one-two, back and forth. So I had been living in a hole this whole time, I thought to myself. And what a fool I was thinking there was even a smidge left of that magic.
I suppose we must make magic a different way now—make it bigger, fancier, louder, and with explosives. That was my thought when the rigged chandelier “crashed” into the audience as fifty Roman candles went off on stage.

On our last full day on vacation, I decided not to join my aunt and her kids on an excursion to the Grand Canyon. I slept till ten then had lunch downstairs. For the rest of the afternoon, I attempted to write a satire about Vegas while looking out the window for inspiration. Too bad I didn’t see any back alley hookers or a mob deal or anything of that nature.
In the afternoon, I sneaked around the hotel looking for something exciting to do besides jumping into fountains to disrupt the general order of things in the hotel. As I was walking into the lobby, I saw a sign that read:


A perfect Hunter Thompson moment! I could potentially sneak into the conference and have a grand ol’ time like when Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo went into the National D.A. Drug Conference with a head full of acid. Except I didn’t have a press pass, and nobody associated with the College Board would let a teenage kid enter their secret meeting. If I went in there, they might have to slice my tongue and bury me somewhere. Besides, they have the law on their side.
After attempting to dress up for dinner, I headed for the French café/bar closest to our hotel room. As I walked into the door, I felt a strong urge to go the bar, converse with the other lonely people, and have a few shots of liquor in the meantime. There was no one stopping me. But I requested a table. The devil was tempting me again when the waitress handed me a wine list.
“I’ll have ice tea, please,” I replied instead. “I’ve got a long night ahead of me.”
Just as she took up the wine list, I began to wonder if there was any liquor in the mini-bar in our suite. Bad idea, I thought to myself. Not because it was illegal for me to drink, but because mini-bar liquor always cost a ridiculous amount of money. And I wasn’t going to pay $30 to get myself half-drunk.
For the rest of the night, I began doing laundry in the bathroom tub by hand since I felt I did not want to spoil myself with luxury. Besides, it was my own personal protest against the excess of Vegas. Down with room service! Do it yourself! True American industrialism! So in an hour, I had washed all my clothes and hung them out to dry. I was damn proud. I was a true pioneer of the desert!
My last night in Las Vegas was spent in peace. But I knew it was just a superficial calm-before-the-storm. Auntie Yang was still waiting for me back in L.A.

The desert between Las Vegas and L.A. must have been one of those places Phaeton accidentally burned when he lost control of his sun chariot. On the tour bus back to L.A., I simply couldn’t sleep and so I stared out of the window the whole five hours. But my mind had wondered elsewhere; the words of “Mr. Bojangles” played through my head. Maybe I miss the South after all. Not the South mass-produced by companies selling shirts stamped with the Confederate flag. No, it’s a place where the rain falls down summer nights, where you never have to sweeten your own tea, and a place where no one slammed the door in your face. (At one of the turnstiles at the Mirage, a man literally slammed the door on my aunt’s face.) But most of all, it is still a mythological land where characters like Mr. Bojangles live on unscarred by the machinery of MTV. You can call the South a time capsule moving through the waves of the fourth dimension…something that like…but don’t go overboard with the Gone-with-the-Wind sentimentalism.
Sure enough, Auntie Yang was there to greet me at the front door when I arrived at my aunt’s house. Her cold smile had more than given me a hint about what’s to come. But when Auntie Yang demanded for my duffle bag so she could do my laundry as soon as possible, I just laughed then explained I had already washed all my clothes last night. She grimaced at the thought of my self-reliance. Was I putting her out of her job?
That night at dinner, Auntie Yang showered my two cousins with questions about Las Vegas. Edward and Jane excitedly recounted everything that happened to them on vacation. Meanwhile, the nanny kept interjecting comments about the wonders of that city while she served us more high-cholesterol food.
“…and the lights are everywhere…Did you see the Tropicana?…Yes?…Beautiful lights everywhere…never goes out…red lights…white tigers…and feathers everywhere…”
I felt sick to my stomach. So I went into the kitchen, casually made myself a brandy-on-the-rocks, and got drunk enough to drown out that parrot-like voice. Yes, with two shots of liquor, I had defeated both Mary Poppins and Nanny McPhee. So what if I felt like a depraved bastard? In times like these, cynicism and drunkenness are the only weapons.

Without a word, I walked past the dinner and into the parlor, where I sat down before the grand piano to play an improvised dirge in A-minor.

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