Sharing a Dark Secret

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The Vegas Strip can be exciting with a view from the right hotel.

I’m finally able to talk about it. More than a decade has passed, and even though I can still recall every minute of the trauma, I can finally admit the truth. There is still a great deal of shame attached, but I have an obligation to share my story even if only one person learns from my misfortune and avoids the same consequences. Yes, I once spent Thanksgiving in Las Vegas.

You can read about past trips to one of my least favorite cities on earth, but I’ve never been able to describe the weekend that was the furthest thing from a Norman Rockwell painting. Gary had gone to Vegas countless times before I knew him, and he received a notice in the mail that a venerable old casino hotel had just undergone a multi-million-dollar renovation. For special customers, enjoy a two-night stay for a ridiculously reduced rate and dinner for two in one of the hotel’s fine eating establishments. Let me be clear; they described the restaurants as “fine.” I didn’t. Come to think of it, they also used “restaurants” but this was a broad definition of the word.

We arrived on the Strip about noon and valet parked at the hotel. We walked from the covered driveway into a lobby enshrouded by cigarette smoke. Some group had decided to hold a convention during Thanksgiving weekend. Either bad planning or a need to take advantage of the special renovation rates had caused them to convene during a national holiday, but we pushed our way through this frontline of nicotine fanatics.

We hadn’t even reached check-in before noticing the limitations of a multi-million-dollar renovation. One should ask how many millions have been multiplied. Two? Three? If one divides $2 million across 1,000 rooms, that’s $2,000. Even at bulk rates and corporate contractor discounts, the budget is quickly eaten up by new televisions, bedding, and a few coats of paint. There is absolutely no money left to professionally repair the damage to bathroom doors where I can only imagine the scene that left such an impression in ours. $2,000 also doesn’t buy new plumbing.

This renovated room was on the 16th floor. We stepped into the elevator for our long ride, which took all of eight seconds between the closing of the doors to their re-opening. That elevator was so fast we felt like we’d barely moved. In fact, we had. Barely moved. I wanted to meet the genius who thought it would make more sense to call the fourth floor of the north tower Floor 16 rather than call it North Tower Fourth Floor. It’s an unpleasant surprise to realize your view is of the HVAC system when you had your heart set on a skyline.

I was already beginning to shut down emotionally and decided that I could take advantage of the hotel’s spa since the room was discounted. I’d driven for five hours and had a terrible shock. A massage might be nice. There were a few staff on duty, but the spa had the vibe of a hospital ward. Very little privacy, a few curtains, and a lot of people moving about. “We also have mineral baths.” Would I like to see? Yes. I’m glad I did before pulling out the credit card. Two gray porcelain/cast iron tubs from 1970 sat side-by-side with shell-shaped inflatable pillows suction-cupped for headrests. There were no privacy curtains, and I couldn’t believe that a pair of vessels filled with 40 years of unwashed gambler bodies could ever be made clean enough to suit me. The bath would be anything but soothing.

I worried about dinner reservations, but there was no difficulty getting a table. We got right in at the time we requested, and a retired showgirl in peach chiffon showed us our seats. Thanksgiving dinner was the only option, and it tasted as though it had all been poured from a series of cans.

I should have learned from The Rocky Horror Picture Show that it’s better to keep driving than to spend the night, but a pair of tickets to one of the hotel’s shows came with the weekend so we stayed over. We saw a commercial for the famous drag show. It had been years since they’d made a new one. I could tell because the performer who used to impersonate Liza was now playing Judy, and Cher looked like what Cher would actually look like if she hadn’t gone in for cosmetic surgery.

We opted for the other show, which was an international tour of Russian ice skaters and acrobats. As special guests of the hotel, we were placed in the center section before they lowered a barrier behind us. The barrier was covered in ice, and our four rows were basically being held hostage for the next 90 minutes. Our heads appeared to bob in the center of an ice fisherman’s large hole.

The performers opened the show with enthusiasm, but their zeal couldn’t have been because theirs was the greatest show on earth. To be filled with such joy while whizzing around the stage on ice skates while a man in the center climbed a stack of chairs and boxes to balance precariously without a net was a strong indicator that life in Putin’s Russia is bleaker than we realize. I could only imagine the families held under duress while their loved ones were forced to travel abroad and perform in this chaotic exhibition.

Whether real or fake, there was one performer that seemed to gain great pleasure from his portion of the show. He was the lead acrobat wearing only a pair of white pants with silver threads to catch the light. He descended the rope and performed some tricks, and then he ascended to take a bow. He descended over and over, performed more tricks, and took more bows. I didn’t realize it until the woman seated in front of me gasped and whispered to her husband. He leaned over and whispered to the man next to him, and everyone began taking notice of the only moment of the show that we could understand.

Gary and I looked at each other, and then in the direction where the people in front of us were pointing. Apparently the acrobat got a lot of pleasure descending and swinging from his rope. The result of his stunts seemed to arouse something within him, and his costume changed shape. With each ascension, he and his costume returned to a more relaxed posture.

The audience couldn’t get out of the theatre fast enough when the show ended. We were caught in a stampede, and I was nearly trampled after tripping over some loose carpet on an uneven section of the lobby floor. Apparently you need billions if you want to renovate an entire hotel.

A few years later we learned that we’d missed out on a major event at that hotel. I would never have spent another night under its many roofs, but I would love to have been there when they set off the dynamite.

© 2019 by Patrick Brown

To learn more about my books, especially the three featuring Maggie Lyon, visit my author page at: http://www.amazon.com/Patrick-Brown/e/B005F0CYH2/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1419885131&sr=8-1

 

We Gather Together

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Who doesn’t love a nice autumnal display to put them in the mood for Thanksgiving?

Thanksgiving is typically the great American feast day, and I much prefer pulling out all the stops for a big celebration than just getting by. However, I’m not in the mood this year to prepare a month’s worth of food for a single sitting that will end up leaving leftovers. I’ll probably wake up on Thanksgiving morning,  wishing I’d made a greater effort, but at this moment I’m not feeling inspired.

The holiday lacks something if I haven’t spent the day in the kitchen, but I also have wonderful memories when someone else did all the work such as six years ago in Vancouver, B.C. (“Market” by Jean-Georges Vongerichten in the Shangri-la Hotel) and eight years ago in Santa Fe (the restaurant at the El Dorado). Those are the two best Thanksgiving dinners I’ve ever eaten, and the trips came about after our experience nine years ago in Las Vegas where I shut down emotionally after experiencing one hotel’s version of Thanksgiving dinner. When I came to, I called upon the forces of the universe to raze that establishment, and I’m happy to report that it no longer exists.

I don’t know when Thanksgiving became my favorite holiday. It could have been in elementary school when I learned that we were getting a four-day weekend a month before Christmas break. Combine the excitement of some much-needed time off with tracing one’s hand to make a turkey or reams of construction paper to make pilgrim hats before we departed, and I was in the mood to celebrate. We learned all of the sanitized tales of colonial living, and the bulletin boards were decked out in fall colors with Norman Rockwell images. Who couldn’t love that?

Thanksgiving morning in the central time zone meant leisurely watching the Macy’s parade while getting ready to spend the day at one or the other of my grandparents’ (we alternated each year), but the morning wasn’t as relaxed and joyful for my mother as she was confined to her least favorite room in the house.

I never knew when she’d been told what to cook, but I can only imagine the assignment had been made at knifepoint. Sometimes on Wednesday night, but usually Thursday morning, I’d hear the sounds of bowls rattling, utensils being flung, cans being opened, and a general groan of discontent coming from the kitchen. I didn’t understand then, but now I can sympathize, knowing I’d feel the same way if I were told to change the tires on a monster truck the night before a rally.

Hot food was eventually loaded in the car, driven for thirty minutes or forty-five depending on which grandparents, and then the cooling food rested somewhere until it was served unless it belonged in the refrigerator. If the fridge was too crowded, items that wouldn’t collapse without chilling sat near the hot food. I survived childhood without any foodborne illnesses from a holiday dinner, but I never had hot turkey and dressing unless it was at school.

Neither of my grandmothers possessed a sense of presentation. There was an abundance of food, but one side of the family put every dish on the table and passed it around while the other side set up a buffet. There were no candles or centerpieces at either house. Turkeys were never plated on a bed of greens and carved at the table, which was best in the case of my maternal grandmother’s bird. She roasted it hot and very early. When I took a peek in the kitchen, there was always something resting under foil that appeared to have smoked in the sun for 40 years. The next time I saw it, it had been artlessly shredded and piled on a plate.

Both sides of the family ate at noon, unless my maternal grandfather pushed for 11:45. That’s probably why no one thought we needed candles. My dad’s family all sat down together, including children, while the men on my mother’s side got their food first, the children second, and once we were all situated, the women had their turn. They women didn’t get to sit more than a second or two because the men, who ate like pie-eating contestants, were already searching for dessert.

On both sides, the whole show was over in less than forty-five minutes, as there was probably a football game someone couldn’t miss. I always thought we should take things slower, but I was one of the youngest and didn’t have a say. As the dishes were being washed, the high doses of carbohydrates and tryptophan brought on a powerful drowsiness in the men, and those whose wives had awakened them before dawn with all that banging around the kitchen were completely conked out with the sound of a ball game barely covering their snores. I came to believe that every living room in the country was filled with unconscious bodies, which looked like the scene of a cult after the Kool-Aid.

Eventually, I’d have opportunities to host Thanksgiving dinners the way I thought they should look, but I’ve never forgotten the joys of my childhood holidays even if those meals at unembellished tables had been rushed. I’ve had Thanksgivings that were magazine layout perfect, and I’ve had Thanksgivings that are best forgotten. In the end, the food and the atmosphere aren’t as important as those who gather together.

© 2017 by Patrick BrownTo learn more about my books, visit my author page at http://www.amazon.com/Patrick-Brown/e/B005F0CYH2/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1419885131&sr=8-1

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Murdered Justice by Patrick Brown is available from W&B Publishers, Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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“Tossed Off the Edge” is the ghost-written tell-all of self-indulgent daytime diva Sheila Wozniak.

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Available online at http://www.amazon.com

 

There’s Nothing In This House to Eat

A few years ago, I hosted a weekend party where several friends stayed over. One of my guests, a mother of young children back then, got up earlier than I. She managed to get the coffee done, but when I got up she explained she’d been unable to find anything to eat.

“You don’t have snacks. I looked through all of your cabinets, and you have lots of food, but it’s all ingredients to be made into something.”

Things seem to have changed very little over the years. Once again, I’m miles from a grocery store that stocks anything really interesting. We keep plenty of basic ingredients and a few items that add unusual flavors, and until we begin the chicken enterprise, we get enough eggs at one time to meet our immediate needs. In spite of a lingering cool spring, the garden produced enough squash and cucumbers to make jars of relish to get us through next summer. For the person living in fear of an apocalypse, or someone who puts jam on every single thing, we have plenty of food. The catch is that most of it qualifies as an ingredient requiring time and energy to transform it into something satisfying.

My parents grew up in The Great Depression, which meant food preservation in the form of canning and freezing. Never a fan of pickled okra, and impatient about thawing times when I wanted something to eat right then, I was always complaining, “There’s nothing to eat around here,” which prompted trips to town for groceries. Gary does the same thing now. What can you do with a jar of pickles or peach jam that doesn’t require some effort?

“We need to go to the store,” he informs me.

“Why?”

“There’s nothing in this house to eat.”

“Sure there is. What do you want?”

“Apple turnovers.”

“I can do peach.”

“They’re not in the freezer.”

“No, but there’s a package of puff pastry in there, and we have jars of strawberry, peach, pineapple and blueberry jams. Pick one and I’ll make turnovers.”

My answers are frustrating to anyone requiring instant gratification. I’m very little help in the “heat-it-up” culture, and if I have to “run to the store” it has to be worth my stopping what I’m doing to make the trip. And when you consider all the processing in the commercial product, what can be done at home is more satisfying.

Perhaps the end result doesn’t look exactly right or taste the same, but you’ll have a difficult time convincing me that store-bought is better. My stubborn attitude can be traced to my grandmother who was the first person I can recall telling me “You don’t need to buy that. I can make it.” The problem was that she couldn’t always get it exactly right in spite of her willingness.

My urban-dwelling cousin occasionally stayed with her for a few days, always complaining of those breakfasts I loved. Pancakes with homemade syrup or runny fried eggs with sausage. Bored with country fare, my cousin asked if they couldn’t have an Egg McMuffin just once.

“What’s that?” asked my grandmother.

“They have them at McDonald’s.”

“That’s over thirty miles from here. We’re not going to McDonald’s for—what did you call it?”

“An Egg McMuffin.”

“What’s in it? I’ll make you one.”

“It’s an English muffin sandwich with a poached egg, a slice of cheese, and a slice of Canadian bacon.”

“Bacon?”

“No, Canadian bacon. More like ham.”

“I can make that.”

I don’t know how long she waited, but my cousin said she learned never to make breakfast suggestions again. It seems that she was presented with a dry biscuit split apart and layered with a runny fried egg, and a thick slice of ham too cold to melt the waxy orange cheese provided to senior citizens back in the 1970s.

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Eggs Benedict is always better than an Egg McMuffin.

I’ve always loved that family story, which has provided a good laugh while prodding me to strive for a good result if attempting a home version of something I’ve seen done by professionals. This attitude has sustained me when I’ve found myself living miles from a quality food purveyor.

Having lived in cities, small towns and now the wilderness, I’ve experienced different levels of accessibility, and I’m once again stockpiling ingredients and getting more practice time in the kitchen. I feel that I’ve grown, and I’m braver about accepting culinary challenges. In many cases I think I can turn out a decent version of a request, and occasionally I can improve upon it. Can I make an Egg McMuffin? No, but isn’t Eggs Benedict tastier?

© 2016 by Patrick Brown

To learn more about my books, visit my author page at http://www.amazon.com/Patrick-Brown/e/B005F0CYH2/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1419885131&sr=8-1

Thanksgiving Can be a Drain

When I was 28, my best friend and I packed up everything we didn’t sell and left Dallas for San Diego. Among the well-wishers were the skeptics that we’d fail in this endeavor. There was a recession going on, and California always suffers in a big way. Even though the California economy is usually among the first to rebound, this information wouldn’t have mattered even if we’d been aware of it. We arrived in early October where the only signs of fall were the angle of the sun’s light and the shorter days. At some point, I’ll write about our first San Diego Thanksgiving, which was spent with two insane people and their pig, but for now, let’s jump ahead three years later when life was much more stable.

After almost being swindled out of our money, Randy and I had ended up living in a tiny cottage that had been built for the Panama-California Exposition of 1915. It was cozy. So cozy that the old GE fridge hit the kitchen counter across from it when you tried to open the door all the way. So cozy that I was never able to close my bedroom closet because my short dresser was still too long and overlapped the door-frame.

The tiny cottage kitchen. That old O'Keefe & Merritt stove was the only redeeming quality.

The tiny cottage kitchen. That old O’Keefe & Merritt stove was the only redeeming quality.

The landlord never brought that fixture for the hallway light, and we used rope because he could never locate the proper doorknob for the bathroom. We didn’t complain much because we knew the cottage was temporary; so temporary that we stayed there for over two-and-a-half years.

We almost missed an opportunity to move into a great house in an historic neighborhood because when a friend had recommended the house to us, Randy and I had driven by separately, and we’d been given the wrong address. Once we figured out where to go and saw the house with the owner, we leased it on the spot. She was a dream of a landlady: “I don’t care what you do. Paint it, put in a new garden, pull out the old one. I trust your judgment. You have a dog? How wonderful! No extra deposit because I love dogs. I’ll always rent to a dog owner, but never a family with children!”

Moving day 1995, three weeks before Thanksgiving.

Moving day 1995, three weeks before Thanksgiving.

After living in less than 700 square feet, this two-bedroom house with a study and a sizeable dining room on a corner lot seemed like we’d moved into an English manor. We were surrounded by great houses, and the neighbors were all very friendly. Some were nosier than I liked, but we hadn’t been there a day when the president of the neighborhood association dropped by with information and a pledge card for membership. We found out that there was a Labor Day block party, an annual Christmas caroling party, and the neighbors on our street got together on the Sunday before Thanksgiving to celebrate before leaving town. The idea of all the entertaining possibilities after having been cooped up in that tiny cottage was nothing short of inspirational.

We never had more than four people at the table in the cottage because you couldn’t get more than that in the room, and since the narrow kitchen had no dishwasher and no place to put anything, I never went to much trouble.

However, the new kitchen had a large refrigerator, a double oven, Corian countertops and custom cabinets with pullout shelves. There was an island and a wall of cabinets with two four-tier lazy Susans, wine racks and more shelving than we needed (at that time). There was a large sink and a washer and dryer. There was also room to stand a dozen people without feeling crowded. We moved in three weeks before Thanksgiving, so we invited the friends that helped us move and planned the menu.

In the years since living in that house when I’ve not had the luxury of a double oven, I complain that it’s impossible to prepare a successful holiday meal when you have to rely on one oven to do everything. Not that I was able to roast a turkey in one oven that first year and cook everything else in the other. That’s because we got overly ambitious and Randy suggested a ham as well as a turkey. Why not?

Since we were going all out, I starched a linen tablecloth and enough napkins for everyone. I realized that we had all of this stemware, so why not get out the wine and champagne glasses? We needed something for water, too, and since we were having soup, we needed sherry glasses. Randy pointed out that we needed white wine glasses for turkey and red for the ham, so that would bring the count to five glasses per person. Don’t forget coffee for later! No mugs; let’s get out the cups and saucers my sister had given me. We’d also use the matching dinner plates, soup bowls and dessert plates. What about silverware? I had that box of nice stuff, which we hadn’t been able to use for over three years.

Setting the table for Thanksgiving; a work in progress.

Setting the table for Thanksgiving; a work in progress.

We planned and came up with ideas until the week of Thanksgiving. I even strolled past the odd neighbor’s house three doors down. She had a maple tree, and I wanted those leaves. I polished silver, and washed glasses that had been in storage since Dallas. Were we going to too much trouble? Not when you considered that we’d all have a Thanksgiving to remember. Besides, with that dishwasher and that new hot-water heater, we’d have it all cleaned up in no time and put back onto those spacious pantry shelves.

Thanksgiving Day arrived, and I got up about 9:00. We’d already decided that there would be no rush to serve dinner before 6:00 p.m. After coffee and a substantial breakfast, we got to work. The turkey was wrapped in cheesecloth, and the ham was artfully scored. Those went into the ovens for a few hours of basting while Randy worked on the dressing. The house smelled great when the first guests arrived about 3:00. We served warmed brie en croute with sliced apples. Another serving plate to clean, but what did that matter?

People were thirsty, and that meant a few more glasses. We’d put out plates for snacking, and that was so much nicer than paper napkins. Dishes were starting to pile up, so I headed for the kitchen with the idea that I’d run a load of dishes before dinner. There were a few food scraps in the sink, so I rinsed them down the drain and turned on the disposal.

There was a funny sound, so I shut it off. The water was still running, and the water wasn’t going down. In fact, it was rising. We’d not used the kitchen very much, but the disposal had worked fine when we had used it once or twice. Without doing anything to it, Randy suggested I try the disposal again. The funny noise was still there, but this time I heard it behind me as well. Something was going on inside the washing machine. We weren’t using it, but I opened it to check. I can still recall the horror of finding food particles floating in a shallow layer of water. The sink had backed up. This couldn’t be good.

I decided to run some water into the clothes washer and then spin it out. As the washer drained and the drum began to increase its speed, I sighed with relief. At least whatever had happened had taken care of itself, and the water was draining. Then I saw the flow coming from underneath the washer like The Blob.

“Get a towel!” I called. Randy looked over from basting the turkey and threw a dishtowel at me. “I’m going to need more than that!” I asked one of our guests to go to the linen closet in the hall and bring some towels. She returned empty handed. “Where are the towels?”

“I can’t use those,” she said. “They’re too nice.”

“That’s all we have. Bring whatever you can find. The water is moving way too fast!”

I hated it, but we used our best towels along with the everyday towels to soak up the water. The sink was completely out of commission and the look on my face was utter defeat. Randy pulled me aside and said sternly, “Don’t you shut down. We have all this food, and everyone is here. We’ll figure it out, but for now, we move ahead as planned.”

This was actually very good advice. Without him, I might’ve told everyone to eat on one plate and use one fork (dessert included) and you get one glass—the one you’re already holding. However, I knew that we’d planned a great evening, a great menu, and in that newly painted red dining room, it was going to be the best Thanksgiving dinner we’d ever served. And it was.

I’d checked the sink as we went into the dining room. The water was receding, which was a good sign. We sat down at 6:35, and we got up from the table just before 9:00. We’d paced the meal, beginning with soup, the main dinner, a light salad and a choice of desserts. We felt like we’d dined in the Gilded Age.

With the exception of the flatware, we didn’t bother clearing the table. There was really no point. The kitchen was piled up with roasting pans, cookware, used plates and glasses from this feast, along with the soiled napkins and the piles of soggy towels from earlier. I’d managed to find a bucket in the garage, and I’d filled it outside. We were able to get a few items in there to soak, but there was nothing else to be done until Friday when the Roto-Rooter man was scheduled to arrive sometime between 7:00 a.m. and noon.

Our friend Paul had brought a movie from Blockbuster, and we all collapsed in the living room, drowsy and stuffed. I fell asleep almost immediately, and I can’t even recall what movie was playing. I finally went to bed with the ominous feeling of being greeted in the morning by the mess that was continuing to dry by the minute.

The plumber explained the next afternoon that lines had been clogged with old grease from the previous tenants. In the weeks since moving in, we’d not prepared any large meals. Therefore, we’d not had any problems until we started really using the kitchen. I made a mental note that one should never attempt to entertain soon after moving into an old house without testing the plumbing first.

Within five years, I would forget that very important lesson when I moved into another old house and had 60 people for a fund-raising dinner within the first two weeks, but that’s another story.

© 2014 by Patrick Brown

My latest book, Tossed Off the Edge, is available at http://www.amazon.com/Tossed-Off-Edge-Patrick-Brown/dp/1495359875/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1415994293&sr=8-1&keywords=tossed+off+the+edge