The terrible symmetry of the Circus Circus (Vegas Week)

September 1, 2011 Travels Comments (0) 399

“The Circus-Circus is what the whole hep world would be doing Saturday night if the Nazis had won the war. This is the sixth Reich. The ground floor is full of gambling tables, like all the other casinos . . . but the place is about four stories high, in the style of a circus tent, and all manner of strange County-Fair/Polish Carnival madness is going on up in this space.”

– Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

When I toured the Vegas Strip in August/September 2010, I didn’t make it to the north end of the Strip. I saw Fremont Street, and visited nearly every casino from the Mirage south to Mandalay Bay, but I missed the Wynn, the Sahara, the Riviera, and one other. Upon my return in August 2011, my must-do list began with one item: to visit Circus Circus. I was very sad to have missed it the first time – from the exterior, Circus Circus has all the appeal of a roadside attraction, where the proprietors may or may not have a stack of lye-powdered bodies stacked in the crawlspace. The concept of a casino with trapeze artists flying over the heads of blue-haired ladies as they pull slots handles is enticing, and I had a few vivid memories from the film adaptation of Fear and Loathing, which involved an angry badger, to further motivate me.

While I can’t say that I personally saw anything that made me think Third Reich, and I was free of any perception-altering drugs save for a couple of gin-and-tonics, I can say honestly that Circus Circus is one of the most uncomfortable places I have ever been – and not in the sense that the temperature was off, or the seating was unpleasant, or anything of the sort. It was uncomfortable in the way Lovecraft describes the city of R’lyeh, built from some strange and foreign geometry that made me unsettled almost from the moment I walked through the front door. Continue Reading

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Conquering (and Surviving) the Buffet (Vegas Week)

August 31, 2011 Personal, Travels Comments (0) 375

Can we just please get a round of applause for a girl who not only models, but also finished that whole plate - and went back for seconds?

The very first place Liz and I went in Las Vegas (after our hotel, of course, we did arrive at 1:30 AM) was the breakfast buffet. On the short list of things Vegas is known for, no doubt, is the food–and while the buffet prices might not be as rock-bottom as they used to be, the buffets are still certainly something to be experienced. On our first trip, we went straight for the dessert table, and I put away a frosted blueberry scone before I even grabbed my first plate. Liz had her first experience with monkey bread–much to my surprise, as it’s always been a Keelty family staple–and I don’t think she’ll ever be the same.

I won’t spend a lot of time with Vegas buffet tips, since they’re much the same as any other buffet, but I’ll do a quick run-down: scout the whole buffet before you fill up your first plate; take small portions of everything that looks good, so you can see what actually tastes good and go up for more; don’t fill up on soft drinks and bread when there’s better tasting (and more economically efficient) food available; and if you’re one of those people trying not to be “irresponsible” (and really, what the hell are you doing in a buffet in the first place, then?) grab a small bread plate instead of a big dinner plate, and fill up on veggies first.

What you do need to know about Vegas buffets is: (1) There are a LOT of them, and (2) They are NOT all created equal. A buffet meal on the Strip can run you anywhere from around $12 (for breakfast at the Monte Carlo, for instance) up to almost $40 (for the gourmet dinner at the Bellagio) per person. If you go off the strip, you can get prices even lower. Many mid-range buffets offer discounts in the free coupon books that are ubiquitous around Vegas, and the buffet has a reputation for being one of the easiest activities to get “comped” on based on your casino play. Continue Reading

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Adventuring off the Strip (Vegas Week)

August 31, 2011 Travels Comments (0) 363

Las Vegas is so well known for the Vegas Strip (which isn’t even technically in Las Vegas, but that’s a subject for another post) that many tourists miss out on the totally different adventures to be had within a short drive. Many know about the Hoover Dam, the project that gave birth to Sin City (as a sort of pleasure dome for the many dam workers who’d been taken away from their wives and families and sent to the middle of the desert), but few take the time to appreciate the wild areas that are only a short drive from the Strip.

An hour to the northeast, at the top of Lake Mead, is the Valley of Fire, a beautiful desert you’ve seen in plenty of movies, where tourists can observe petroglyphs left by indigenous people three thousand years ago. In the summer, though, when the Valley of Fire demonstrates its name, you may be more interested in escaping the heat. An hour northwest of Las Vegas is the Spring Mountains, better known for their highest peak and its namesake city, Mount Charleston. These mountains feature over 50 miles of recreational trails–some gradual enough for a beginning in tennis shoes, others suited more for advanced hikers–and because the base of most of these trails is 5,000 feet higher in elevation than Las Vegas, temperatures are generally about 20 degrees cooler than on the Strip.

Getting to the Spring Mountains is easy, and parking is plentiful. To find a trail suited for you, I recommend the comprehensive guide at – but be warned, cell phone reception is very spotty in the mountains, so it’s wise to plan ahead and print out all the directions you’ll need before you go. Continue Reading

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Philadelphia Post-Hurricane Irene

August 29, 2011 In The News, Personal, Philly / Pennsylvania Comments (0) 446

The reporter in me says "what a great image!" while the nerd in me says "Obviously that's why they build things like parking lots on flood plains."

I flew back from Las Vegas literally hours before Hurricane Irene hit Philadelphia. Let me say that it’s pretty unfair going from the City of Overstimulation straight to twenty-four hours of lockdown inside my apartment, but I was worried about leaving my cats alone. I had visions of my windows shattering, glass flying everywhere, and one or both of the cats getting lost in the streets of South Philadelphia, and I figured that if I was home, I could pull them into the bathroom where there are no windows.

In the end, of course, there was very little damage. The wind blew pretty noisily for a few hours, and a brand new leak opened in the ceiling of my living room (which reminds me, I need to call the landlord today…) but mostly I played on Facebook and watched a lot of sensationalist hurricane coverage on the news.

Speaking of sensationalist hurricane coverage... my favorite image to come out of Hurricane Irene, courtesy of Skeptoid genius Brian Dunning.

To be clear, I am not complaining. At all. While Irene’s passage through Philly wound up being mostly hype, there were a good two hours when I was feeling pretty anxious, and I’m thankful things weren’t worse. One look at the consequences in North Carolina and in the Catskill Mountains reminds us that we shouldn’t take such weather events lightly. Continue Reading

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Luxor Las Vegas (Vegas Week)

August 29, 2011 Personal, Reviews, Travels Comments (1) 1102

In honor of last week’s trip to Las Vegas with Liz, this week is Vegas Week, where we learn about the history, sexy and sleazy, of Sin City, and I share my personal experience and advice for a visit.

Opened in 1993, the Luxor was an early entry in Vegas’s 1990s mega-resort renaissance.  Built by Circus Circus enterprises, the same company that built Excalibur, Luxor shares Excalibur’s heavy-handed approach to theme. While Excalibur’s medieval theme has been carried to a ridiculously tacky exterior, however, Luxor’s ancient Egyptian theme, equally garish, manages to be sexy. From the exterior, Excalibur looks like a giant toy castle, owing probably to the “family attraction” concept Vegas resorts were pushing so hard in the 1990s. The white towers with brightly colored roofs look like something that would come in a box labeled Playmobil or Lego. Luxor, meanwhile, is a sleek obsidian pyramid, which would be invisible by night except for the white lights that dance up and down its vertices and the spotlight beam at its peak, reportedly the brightest in the world, that seems to be beckoning alien life to come drop a few hundred grand at the tables. Yes, there is also a giant tacky sphinx out front, but most people hardly notice it because the pyramid is so eye-catching. Continue Reading

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“The Dark Knight Rises” is filming winter scenes in Pittsburgh.

August 1, 2011 In The News, Philly / Pennsylvania Comments (0) 249

Yesterday in Pittsburgh it was ninety degrees and muggy, and Bane and his army of soldiers or minions or whatever were wearing winter coats. That’s fake snow that’s blowing around on the steps of the courthouse. Makes me a little glad I’m not in the movie business. Continue Reading

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The FIAO of Queens 2011 5K Run

July 26, 2011 Personal, Travels Comments (0) 470

Sunday I ran my shortest race yet, a 5K (that’s 3.1 miles for you non-runner-types) in Astoria, organized by the Federation of Italian American Organizations of Queens. It was also the smallest race I’ve run, with maybe 400 runners if I’m generous. Liz has a pretty good writeup on her blog, so I’d recommend you go there if you want a lot more detail. The official races that I have run so far, in order, are a marathon, a 10 mile run, a 5-miler, and now a 5K. I guess now I need to find a one-mile run, then maybe a half-mile, a few track races, and then I can “officially” sit on the sofa while someone times me.

There are a lot of these little community runs around, and having only run larger, better-funded races to this point, it was a very different experience – there was very little ceremony, just a shout of “Runners set, GO!” that came in the middle of a conversation. We used no timing chips, but volunteers shouted our numbers and scribbled down our finishing times. I ran a 26:02 according to the official clock, which is not a personal best, but it’s not too far off. Going into the race I was really hoping to beat my best previous 5K time, but the combination of a fairly hilly course and a heat index in the mid-90s by the heat index, did me in.

Liz came in second among women, her best finish to date and especially impressive because she’s been dealing with a muscle injury in one leg that’s been keeping her from running. Before the race, she wasn’t sure if she would even be able to run. The fastest woman runner beat Liz by less than a minute, which probably has a lot to do with Liz’s experience running longer races. Experienced marathoners like her learn to set a sustainable pace out of the start, and save energy for a burst of speed (runners call this a “kick”) with a mile or less to go. At a short distance like a 5K, it’s a better strategy to push your speed right from the start line, and a marathoner’s natural instinct to set a sustainable pace can be a hindrance.

Elmwood Park Zoo used to put on an annual 5K run a lot like this one, held together by scotch tape and gum. Running the FIAO race got me thinking about those days watching the runners and thinking they were insane and how I would never, ever be able to run like that.

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Sharing the road

June 21, 2011 Personal, Philly / Pennsylvania Comments (0) 503

I took advantage of the gorgeous evening in Philadelphia last night with a long-ish bike ride through the city and along the Schuylkill River Trail and Kelly Drive. Not too many cities offer 30+ miles of prime riverside trail, and Philadelphia residents are generally quick to take advantage. Lots of residents. Lots and lots of residents. I know, because I nearly hit damn near every one of them.

Like those out for an evening stroll with the family, walking four abreast on a crowded recreational trail – holding hands. Heavy ladies, side by side with ample room in between for arm swinging. Inline skaters, most of them inexperienced, legs kicking wildly like newborn deer. Then there are the serious cyclists – of which I am not one – who tear through the crowd at approximately seven hundred miles per hour, a barely perceptible streak of neon lycra and entitlement.

How one’s perception changes with their station in this melee! When I have been a pedestrian, I curse the reckless bicyclists who warn me with a staccato “onyourleft!” a split second before nearly bisecting me. When I run or ride my bike, it’s the pedestrians who are the assholes, utterly oblivious to everything happening around them. When they aren’t head-down in their personal electronic devices, they’re caught up in conversation, or staring mindlessly at the clouds like a hapless cow heading for the bolt gun. Continue Reading

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Weekend in New Orleans

October 4, 2010 Travels Comments (0) 341

This weekend I escaped on a long-anticipated visit to New Orleans with my BFF Liz and her brother and sister, who was on the eve of her twenty-first birthday.  This was the first time any of the three of them had visited the Vieux Carre, and only my second.  I was there in September 2004, a year nearly to the day before Katrina arrived and changed everything.

It was interesting seeing the city post-Katrina.  Prior to the visit, I wondered how much would have changed.  The French Quarter, physically at least, appears unchanged.  There are perhaps more vacant storefronts, but everything I remembered, from Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop to the Cat’s Meow to the poster of disturbingly young girls hung in the window of Little Darlings strip club, was intact.  What has changed dramatically is the culture.  Katrina figures prominently in almost all the art on display in the Quarter, and conversations with locals almost always include some mention to things “before the storm.”

The purpose of our trip had nothing to do with cultural anthropology, however.  Our goal was debauchery.  The weekend was a bit of a whirlwind, trying to squeeze as much of the New Orleans experience out of our few days as we could, and ended up being a bit tamer perhaps than we’d anticipated.  There was certainly a lot of drinking – both the classic New Orleans cocktails like absinthe, sazerac, and mint julep and the sickly-sweet Bourbon Street variety, all of which seem to come in their own plastic souvenir cup.  On my first trip six years ago, I fell in love with Hurricanes, the signature drink of Bourbon Street.  I was dismayed on this trip to learn that my taste buds have lost their affection for sugar and fruit flavoring, and after a couple of frozen fruit drinks I needed beer and whiskey to put me right. I like to think that means my palate is more sophisticated now, and not just that I’m getting old. Continue Reading

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