Tuesday, May 20, 2003

My Trip To New Mexico, And Back

My preparations for the trip started slowly, during the week of May 5th, by catching up on some Davis Musical Theater Company (DMTC) money matters (where I'm treasurer), by catching up on sleep after DMTC ended its run of "Grease" (where I played Eugene the Nerd), and by doing some housecleaning. I left Persia Nelson (Katherine Arthur's daughter) in charge of the house, with the task of redecorating, rearranging the furniture, cleaning the place further, and otherwise making it a better place to live.

After Pam Lourentzos' ballet class on Sunday May 11th, I dragged my suitcase and a big painting by the artist Joe Ray to the airport. I bought the painting a year ago, on the Internet, with the assistance of Deborah McMillion-Nering, from MARS Artspace in Phoenix, for my sister Michelle's birthday, or for Christmas, but since I hadn't gone to N.M. lately, I still had the painting. There was only one place on the plane where the painting would fit (behind the very last seats, opposite their dedicated space for art portfolios), but at least there was a space: 32" x 39" is the largest size painting you ever want to take on one of Southwest's 737's. I lugged the painting through the Las Vegas airport, where we changed planes, but succeeded in getting it to Albuquerque intact, where I rented a car, and drove to my Dad's mobile home in the North Valley.

Arising late on Monday morning May 12th, I prepared to leave for Santa Fe to do genealogical research at the N.M. State Archives. I idly read the front-page story of the Albuquerque Journal:

SANTA FE - President Bush will get back to work today by pushing his tax cut and job creation plans at a Bernalillo business after spending a relaxing golf weekend in Santa Fe.

Bush will travel to Bernalillo to give a speech on his tax cut and economic growth plans at MCT Industries Inc. around 9:30 a.m., said Tucker Eskew, a White House spokesman.

I looked at the clock on the wall - it was 9:28 a.m. "Holey Moley, I'm late", I shouted! I quickly drove over to Bernalillo, N.M. (where my grandmother once lived, where numerous cousins live, and where I lived briefly when I was 3 years old), towards Santa Fe, 10 miles north of the Albuquerque city limits, exiting I-25 at the southern exit to Bernalillo around 10 a.m. Immediately, I noticed several Sandia Pueblo police cars blocking off what appeared to be a freeway frontage road, but I drove past, assuming that MCT Industries would be on the south side of town. When I couldn't find the place, I drove back to where the police cars clustered, and hesitated. I was confused, not only by the speech's location, but the unexpected appearance of a new-looking Mormon church where the road to my grandmother's old house should have been located, and by the abrupt appearance of a roadrunner racing across the street. Why did the roadrunner cross the street? Because Acme Industries was on the other side?

Anyway, I got back on the freeway, and went to Bernalillo's north exit from I-25, passing what was obviously MCT Industries, with its big American flag, and throngs of guests. Nevertheless, the formidable appearance of policemen, a few troops, lots of traffic, and a few protesters dissuaded me from turning on the frontage road towards the speech's location. Frustrated, I drove around back to the south side of town, established that the Mormon church had, in fact, not displaced the road to my grandmother's old house, and sneaked up close to MCT Industries, reaching the frontage road where it intersected Richardson Drive, south of the speech's location. I parked, and stood with a few locals from the mobile home park across the street, as well as policemen from Santa Ana Pueblo (every policeman in 20 miles must have been nearby). I guessed that, since Bush was traveling from the north, from Santa Fe, probably towards Albuquerque, to the south, he would have to pass this location. And we waited.

People entertained themselves. A man picked up his close-cropped 3-year-old son by placing his palms on either side of the kid's head and lifting him straight up, dangling the kid's body from the kid's head. Never would work with me! Several police motorcycles raced by in formation: first, a group of two cycles, and then a group of four. One woman smiled and said, "they're going to get a ticket!" I spoiled the joke slightly by stating the obvious: "I don't think so!" One African-American man, a local apparently well-known to the mobile-home-park folks, wandered down the middle of the frontage road, and a motorcycle cop stopped and ordered him off the road. Actually, I was surprised to see any local African-Americans - Bernalillo historically has had very few, but times must be changing.

Then, many cycles approached in formation, bracketing four vehicles - Bush's motorcade! As they drove past, I had trouble figuring out which vehicle was his (apparently the second, in front of the antenna-laden communications SUV). I couldn't see well through the tinted glass, and I was standing too far to the left to clearly see Bush himself, seated, as one should have expected, on the far right. The excited mobile-home folks saw Bush wave at them, though. I was very impressed. Imagine, Bernalillo, N.M., federal-aid-dependent capital of north-central N.M., hosting the President of the U.S.! Won't happen again in a hundred years! I figured he must have owed Senator Pete Domenici a favor, or something. After Bush passed, kids posed for photos with the Santa Ana policemen. Everyone seemed happy. So now, I've come close to seeing a sitting President three times, but not quite succeeded - I shook hands with Jimmy Carter, on October 4th, 1976, in Denver, CO, just before his election, saw a speech by Ronald Reagan at Arizona State University's Sun Devil basketball arena, in July, 1989, shortly after he had left office, and now almost saw George W. Bush.

A few national commentators took note of Bush's speech, which surprised me, given Bernalillo's obscurity. Michael Kinsley, at Slate, had an especially acidic take on MCT Industries. There was also an article concerning press manipulation that made reference to the Bernalillo speech, by Elisabeth Bumiller of the New York Times, reported in the Sacramento Bee on May 18th:

"And on Monday, for remarks the president made promoting his tax cut plan near Albuquerque, N.M., the White House unfurled a backdrop that proclaimed its message of the day, 'Helping Small Business,' over and over. The lettering was too small to be read by most in the audience, but just the right size for television viewers at home."

Afterwards, I drove around Bernalillo, taking note of the many changes that have accumulated over the years. I was surprised by the appearance of a "MTV Lane" in a mobile-home park near my grandmother's old house: just a coincidence, or some sort of honor for the music network?

On Monday and Tuesday, I drove to Santa Fe to do genealogical research at the N.M. State Archives, and on Wednesday I stayed in Albuquerque, at the old Public Library, where genealogical information is also available. By plowing through the data, I discovered that one ancestor, who moved from Mexico to N.M. in 1852, was a candymaker by trade. How strange is that? I now have a million questions about how that would have worked, especially in the very rural Old West. Did he pick the trade up in Mexico as a young man, or did he learn it in Santa Fe? Why did he move to very-rural Los Lunas, south of Albuquerque - it couldn't have been to practice his craft, could it? Was it a family tradition? But there is no one to ask - he's long gone! I also had some success in pushing back my Sena line of ancestors back to around 1800, but I don't know whether that is sufficient to connect my ancestry with that of the prominent Sena family of Santa Fe (that clan is so large anyway), but I hope so.

On a very windy and dusty Thursday May 15th, I travelled with my sister Michelle, to Madrid and Galisteo, N.M., on the high plateaus between Albuquerque and Santa Fe. I bought lots of stuff in the Madrid shops - Guatamalan wear, pretty paper constructions, a kaleidoscope, etc. After passing felons collecting roadside litter (from the nearby N.M. State Penitentiary?), we stopped at the cemetery in Galisteo, looking for Valdezes, but found none. Apparently we were near where Shirley MacClaine and her friends have their various estates, because we passed places like the Nizhoni School for Global Consciousness.

Upon our return, the entire family went to dinner, but afterwards we went to my sister Marra's house when we learned in a frantic call from her husband Ken that the winds had knocked a tree down on their house. The damage was minimal, fortunately.

I travelled again with my sister Michelle, to Santa Fe, on a calm and clear Friday, May 16th. We also stopped in Bernalillo, to see our grandparents' graves, located in the Our Lady of Sorrows Cemetery near the successful, obviously well-connected, and (to my alarm) ever-expanding MCT Industries. In Santa Fe, we visited the Veteran's Memorial Cemetery, where our mom, uncle, and aunt are buried. Drought-ridden Santa Fe water restrictions are making it hard for the Cemetery to keep the grass green, especially near where my mom is buried. We also shopped (I bought a pretty emerald-green aventurine jewelry box), and drove around aimlessly in the pretty hills, with all the beautiful houses.

Friday evening, after eating Mexican food that had apparently begun to go bad, I bid Albuquerque farewell and made a quick trip via a nausea-inducing Southwest 737 to Las Vegas, NV. The Las Vegas weekend was a hectic time, visiting the family of a college friend in the remote northern suburbs, my cousin's family in the somewhat-less-remote eastern suburbs, and with various gambling and discotheque forays on the Strip, which ended up mostly OK.

My first hosts were my UNM (University of New Mexico) college friend, Ira Gershin, and his family, consisting of wife Marci, and daughters Rachel and Beth (ages 11 and 9, respectively), son Daniel (age 7), and German Shepherd dog Midnight (nine months?). Ira and Marci greeted me at the airport, and helped me rent a car, which proved good for the flexible travel I had in mind that weekend. I stayed with them Friday night, even though that meant my paid-for hotel room at the Excalibur hotel on the Strip remained unoccupied that night (room reservations secured through Vegas.com, while reasonable, unfortunately can't be changed much less than a week in advance). Friday night, Ira and I went to the nearby (only five miles away) new Sun Coast casino, to play blackjack, where Ira lost, but I won ($547.50 - $200.00 = $347.50). It was a pleasant escapade for me, even though the Mexican dinner and I had to part company during the evening. After retiring at 3 a.m., I awoke to the early-rising children (around 7 a.m.) They were very curious about me, remembering a previous visit in January 2000, when I brought my dog Sparky, when Rachel still had allergies to dogs, and couldn't play with him as much as she wanted.

Ira and family were fun. Rachel tends toward intellectual pursuits, and she is a little anxious about making the transition to 6th grade. She is going to be having her bat mitzvah on Martin Luther King weekend in 2004. Beth, with her curious but attractive lisping speech, is showing signs of fulfilling a potential for beauty that I noticed as long ago as 2000. Daniel, age 7, is one very active kid. As Ira and Marci painted Beth's bedroom on Saturday morning, Daniel buttonholed me for hours with his Pokemon cards and Donkey Kong on the Nintendo 64.

After visiting Ira and family, I drove back to the Excalibur hotel, showered, and ended up playing blackjack at the neighboring Luxor casino for several hours Saturday afternoon. I won a lot of money ($1093.50 - $140.00 = $953.50, plus the previous $347.50 = $1301.00 total winnings). I left the Luxor at 5 p.m., to make my 6 p.m. dinner appointment with my (now elderly) cousins, Joyce Anton Krebs (also a descendant of the Sena clan) and her husband Ralph, who live on the east side of Las Vegas, way out on Tropicana Blvd., way past Liberace's museum (which, unfortunately, I didn't have time to visit).

I have noticed, in previous blackjack gambling, that prolonged time at the tables kills. Even if the odds are slightly in your favor (which they aren't, they are slightly in the casino's favor), the back-and-forth, win-and-lose nature of gambling will eventually cause you to lose your entire bankroll. The long-time winner is always the party with the biggest bankroll, namely, the casino. But if duration at the tables is limited by hard deadlines (e.g., by Ira's need to return home, or by my dinner appointment with the Krebs), it is still possible to come out ahead, or at least not lose badly, since deadlines impose some badly-needed discipline on the effort. According to the book named 24/7 (Living It Up and Doubling Down in the New Las Vegas), by Andres Martinez, published in 1999, which I was reading during this trip, the fiendish gambler and writer extraordinaire Fyodor Dostoevsky posed the need for detachment and discipline thus in a letter to his wife:

If one is prudent, that is, if one is as though made of marble, cold, and inhumanely cautious, then definitely without any doubt, one can win as much as much as one wishes.

I hadn't seen the Krebs in about five years. I arrived at their new home in a gated community and regaled them with stories of my good luck, plus my determination to buy everyone as big a dinner as they could handle - $1000 worth of pizza if they wanted. Even though Joyce had just worked a 12-hour shift as a security guard, she seemed happy and alert, and gratified to hear something else than a sad story about the casinos. Their son Christopher was also there. Christopher is apparently a refugee of the dot.com collapse in Silicon Valley, and who now commutes often between Las Vegas and Santa Clara, CA, for various property maintenance jobs. I bought them all a sumptuous all-you-can-eat dinner at Sam's Town casino buffet, although I tried to be careful, since memory of the Mexican dinner lingered. Ralph endeavored to help me with the genealogy work - he gave me a copy of his own Krebs masterwork. We also went on what seemed like a fool's errand, looking for an open Kinko's copying place at 9 p.m. on a Saturday night, in order to copy some Sena-related material. But I need not have worried: Las Vegas is THE 24/7 city. After getting lost, and suffering through a traffic jam near the UNLV stadium, where a heavy-metal concert was getting out, we were successful in getting the few pages I needed copied. It was a very pleasant visit!

By now I was anxious. I had a lot of money, and unless I spent it on goods, I was likely to lose it in the casinos. I decided to try, in a rather ineffectual way, to spend a portion of the winnings on goods. Racing back past Liberace's museum (now closed for the evening), I stopped at the Tropicana Blvd. Wal-Mart and went hunting for a new suitcase to carry my loot. I could have bought more items there, like a digital camera, but I was indecisive and not inclined to do product research at the instant. I returned to the Excalibur Hotel with just the suitcase, and went shopping there instead.

There is a Hat Shop at the Excalibur, where I started buying caps, wands, hats, etc. There was a very well-spoken 26-year old Filipino immigrant manning the counter, named Jose Melancio (Jomel) Clarito. He buttonholed me for about an hour in a cabbages-and-kings kind of discussion. He described the travails of being Filipino in these post-September 11th days, when many Filipino immigrants have lost employment because they are not native-born, for example, from the various airport security jobs that used to provide an good entry-level living. Plus casinos have the habit of dismissing entire boatloads of people, immigrants included, like all the pirates just dismissed en masse over at Treasure Island Casino. Jomel reminded me of what my friend Gabe MacAuliffe might have been like if he had been a Filipino immigrant growing up in gang-ridden Covina in the 80's rather than a native-born Californian growing up in Sacramento in the 70's. In any event, it was a pleasant discussion (I notice, in vapid and transient Las Vegas, a real yearning for people to make and hold human connections).

Afterwards, I wanted to see if the Studio 54 discotheque (named after the original New York club) at the MGM Grand Hotel, across the intersection of Tropicana Blvd. and the Las Vegas Strip from the Excalibur, was quite as exotic as I remembered it from my March, 2002 visit. On that night a year ago, I arrived on a Tuesday night, which is EDEN (Exotic Dancers and Entertainers Night), when these strange but beautiful working people can get in without paying cover. What an amazing spectacle! Acres of splendor! Hanging with the supermodels! So, passing by the New York, New York Hotel's loop-da-loop roller coaster (which I badly wanted to ride, but there was no freakin' time), I made my over to the MGM Grand.

Discotheques are a form of theater - personal theater. Live out your bacchanalian fantasies, exposed in perfect anonymity. As expected, there was no way to get in Studio 54 around midnight - it was still too early, and crowded, but there appeared to be a big party in the cavernous lobby outside Studio 54. From a tall platform, about eight women, dressed in platinum-blonde wigs, go-go-boots, and various mini-skirts and thin blouses, sang the 80's hit "I Want Candy" and did exactly the same hand-jive routine we had just done for "Grease" at DMTC (apparently it's been standardized):

I know a girl who's soft and sweet
She's so fine, she can't be beat
Got everything that I desire
Sets the summer sun on fire

I want candy
I want candy

Ought to see her with her hair hung down
Ain't no finer girl in town
Candy's just what the doctor ordered
She's so sweet she makes my mouth water

I want candy
I want candy

Candy on the beach, there's nothing better
But I like candy in slack's and a sweater
Some day soon I'll make you mine
Then I'll have candy all the time

I want candy
I want candy

Hmmm….. The beautiful crowd seemed to be too soused, and too inclined to preen, to give these women their full attention. So, I went off and played more blackjack, but lost this time (maybe because there was no hard deadline: $820.00, plus the previous $1301.00 wins = $481.00 total winnings for the entire trip, a modest overall win). At around 2:30 a.m., I finally entered the packed Studio 54 and danced with the very strange and exotic crowd there. Several go-go dancers, looking much like the platinum blondes outside (maybe they were some of the same ladies, since a DJ had now replaced the ladies outside), elevated themselves above the writhing crowd. They had similar go-go boots to the ladies outside, but wore strange mesh-like leotards, and those ever-popular thongs, of course. They pointed single ostrich feathers at the dancers with a sense of hauteur and command. A bare-chested man with painter pants and great abs, who looked liked he fell right out of a Kylie Minogue video, danced provocatively on another riser. Hordes of people shook and twisted in the dark on metal-mesh platforms suspended over the dance floor. Theatrical lights whipped to and fro in the cacophonous musical din, in a computer-driven frenzy.

I'm sure I stood out in this crowd like a baboon in a flock of birds, being much older and certainly funnier-looking, but I presumed upon their beneficent sense of tolerance, and just flailed around with the best of them. A few people seemed friendly, but it was hard to tell in the noise.

The dancing was not as energetic as I remembered a year ago. Rap/hip-hop music ruled for about 45 minutes, then 30 minutes of high-energy house, then back to rap/hip-hop. Two songs stand out in my memory. First there was Notorious B.I.G.'s enormous hit (featuring rapper Sean Combs, formerly known as Puff Daddy, who has now adopted the nickname Notorious B.I.G. preferred all along, P. Diddy), Going Back To Cali. Not only is the hook line mesmerizing in its chant-like way, but for once, my life, and Notorious B.I.G.'s (who was murdered in 1996), were moving along parallel directions: the early-morning wake-up call for a plane trip to California:

*phone number being dialed*
*phone rings three times*
[Biggie] Yo!
[P. Dad] Yo Big wake up wake up baby
[Biggie] Mmm, yo...
[P. Dad] Yo Big wake yo' ass up c'mon
[Biggie] I'm up! I'm up. *mumbling* I'm up I'm up
[P. Dad] Big, wake up!
[Biggie] I'm up diddy, what the fuck, man? What's up?
[P. Dad] C'mon now it's a quarter to six we got the 7:30 flight
[Biggie] Mmm, *mumbling* yeah
[P. Dad] Yo Big Big, Big
[Biggie] Yeah I hear you dogg, I hear you, alright, 7:30
[P. Dad] Yo take down this information
[Biggie] Ain't no pen
[P. Dad] Tell your girl then to remember it or somethin
[Biggie] Aight honey, yeah write this down
[P. Dad] Aight, ummm, flight five-oh-four
[Biggie] Five-oh-four
[P. Dad] Leaving Kennedy
[Biggie] *mumbling* Kennedy
[P. Dad] On the L-A-X
[Biggie] Oh! Cali??
[P. Dad] No doubt baby, you know we gotta get this paper
[Biggie] Ahh, no doubt, aight
[P. Dad] You aight?
[Biggie] I'm up, I'm up
[P. Dad] Yo Big
[Biggie] I'm UP man
[P. Dad] Flight five-oh-four
[Biggie] Alright 7:30 I'ma meet you at the airport
[P. Dad] California
[Biggie] Yeh
*phone clicks*



I'm going going, back back, to Cali Cali
I'm going going, back back, to Cali Cali
I'm going going, back back, to Cali Cali
I'm going going, back back, to Cali Cali


(Lyrics available here, or here).

Then there was also the huge summer 2002 House hit by Who Da Funk (featuring Jessica Eve), called Shiny Disco Balls. This song was very popular, especially in U.K. dance clubs, and is practically THE Las Vegas anthem among Clubbers the world over. It gave me the greatest pleasure to hear the tune, at last, in its proper environment, a Las Vegas discotheque….

rock 'n' roll...
bad-ass vegas whores...
late-night booty calls...
shiny disco balls...

I danced till about 4:30 a.m. or so, retired back to the Excalibur, and restlessly twitched in bed until the 6 a.m. wake-up call from the Excalibur automatic attendant:

I'm going going, back back, to Cali Cali
I'm going going, back back, to Cali Cali
I'm going going, back back, to Cali Cali
I'm going going, back back, to Sacramento

Upon returning to Sacramento, sleepy and barely awake, I was amazed at the progress Persia Nelson had made in improving the house. The room previously known as the pinko-stinko room, partly because of the pink carpet (even before the bunny's litter box was housed there) is now the sharpest room in the house. Vast improvements and Persia's discerning eye at work everywhere! I was even able to make Pam Lourentzos' Sunday ballet class at 11:30 a.m. Then afterwards, a nap, and back to the DMTC routine, with "Show Boat" rehearsal that evening.

End of trip!