Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Lost Vega$

As much as I hate to admit Jason Whitlock went Bill Cosby on us and as one whose passion revolves around dissecting & critiquing race relations and identity, I will say that the NBA All-Star weekend in Vega$ was as sad as Whitlock announced. I had planned a trip to New York City that weekend. I was supposed to be in smoke-filled jazz clubs instead of smoke-filled casinos; I was to indulge in the culinary culture of New York, instead I opted to fill up at Harrah’s Flavors buffet (at least I got $5 off for signing up for a players card). I was supposed to experience the Museum of Modern Art and finally see a Picasso and Dali under one roof; instead I saw bootleg versions of the Eiffel Tower & Statue of Liberty, an enormous gold plated lion, and an array of T&A. As my boy Chris eloquently put it, “Yo son, one man’s cookie is another man’s cake.” That’s right folks; those JetBlue cancellations were very, very real.

As my girlfriend and I sat there in front of my laptop staring at the word “CANCELLED,” while my airport transportation sat quietly watching a Mexican league soccer game, I thought of the inevitable – we’re going to Vega$. We’d been planning our trip to NYC for about a month… I fantasized. I fantasized about exploring Pinero’s Lower East Side on foot, about catching some up and coming trumpet player from Anywhere, USA pumping Miles-like steam from said instrument, about calling my sisters from some Greenwich Village bar in a drunken stupor because I miss them like hell whenever I travel. I was not able to reschedule our flights within a reasonable time frame and ultimately had to cancel the entire trip. After much ado about nothing, my dad went home and Fatima (my girl) & I were on our way to buy a six-pack of Sierra Nevada and bean and cheese burritos lined with rice and guacamole from the usual spot, Alberto’s. We headed back to my place, ate, drank and watched television. We moped a bit, not as much as I’d expected. To be honest, I was secretly relieved to have dodged the cold of NYC. I’m a California boy born and bred; I’ve never even been in or around snow… ever. We bounced around a few alternate trip ideas such as Chicago, Napa Valley, San Francisco, Austin, and Vega$ resulting in a Napa Valley vs. Vega$ affair. Off to bed we went.

Here comes the sun…

Having completely come to terms with our misfortune and dreamt of roulette tables, free Heineken and all out debauchery my mind was made up. I woke up my chica like a kid on Christmas, “Wake up, let’s go to Vegas!” Two hours, an oil change, a few iTunes purchases and a terrible tuna sandwich later we were heading north on the 15 freeway. There’s something about the drive to Vega$ that transcends the fact that you’re in the middle of the desert… it changes you. It conjures silly hope and the excitement of not completely knowing what’s to come; kind of like hitting it off with some hot girl at your favorite bar/club. You’re kinda sketchy about what’s going to happen next, you know it’ll be short-lived but you also know that there’s a strong possibility it will be memorable regardless of how much alcohol is involved. Strike up the Eurythmics!

Once foot was set in the 702 and luggage had been tossed on the semi-stained floor in some room on the 22nd floor of the Flamingo hotel; we hurried down to the casino floor and plopped ourselves at the roulette table… boy was it fun. My girl’s got a knack for predicting shit, she has marginal psychic powers! Nevertheless, the next three nights would be well spent amongst complete strangers turned friends, as we are all comrades on S.S. Next Stop: ATM. We had a blast catching the Beatles Cirque Du Soleil show, eating dinner at 3A.M., betting on long shot ponies and actually winning (teaching some old East Coast fogies at the sportsbook to never underestimate a research obsessed twenty-something year old Mexican kid from Los Angeles that has already beaten a shitload of odds), playing Blackjack, Let It Ride, roulette, even slots. We were hot and remained tepid at worst most of the weekend. We even stayed an extra night and I came home with a few hundred in my pocket. How often does that happen? Almost never. I still wonder if my Algexicana had as much fun… I hope so.

But it wasn’t all gravy.

Whenever I go to Sin City, I need psychological prep time for the cheesy decadence that is Vega$ ß notice the dollar sign. I must set aside all ideals and views of what the world should be. I think of what Gandhi would say to my paramount hypocrisy. “Be the change that you want to see.” So much for that eh? Still, I embrace my faults and imperfections – I embrace my humanity. So I’ll quote him again: “My imperfections and failures are as much a blessing from GOD as my successes and talents.” Ah, much better. I hit the solidarity pause button for a weekend and set my mind on apathetic cruise control.

When I got back to L.A. it was a different story… consciousness returned and it was a little pissed.

As I mentioned, it was NBA All-Star Weekend. I didn’t realize what a spectacle, if I can use that word, it was. Never in my life had I seen so many black folks. I couldn’t imagine that many Mexicans in one place outside of Mexico. Replace the All-Star game with the World Cup Championship game in which Mexico plays Brasil, add a Mariachi festival with Vicente Fernandez headlining the shit and Rebelde as the opening act, bring back Pancho Villa from the dead to meet George W. Bush in the octagon for a mixed martial arts competition at the MGM Grand, bring in a thousand King Taco trucks, George Lopez & Cantinflas (again, from the dead) to M.C. the whole thing and I can guarantee you that it still wouldn’t hold a candle to NBA All-Star Weekend, in terms of attendance of course.

I grew up in L.A. and have been around black folks most of my life – I mean, black and brown folks are as much a fixture of the Los Angeles landscape as palm trees. Back in the Lakers’ Showtime days I had a friend named Warren whom I’d shoot hoops and Slip ‘n Slide with during the summer. Remember that? He didn’t go to school with the rest of the kids in my neighborhood. His father was a minister and I presume afraid of letting his kids go to a predominately Latino/white school. I’ve always been a curious person but as a kid my curiosity was on steroids. I remember asking Warren what it was like to be black and if people called him n*gger? I actually asked him that, fo' real, just like that. I mean I hadn’t even begun to try and grasp my own identity as a Chicanito. I spoke Spanish with my parents, watched Chespirito but also spoke English at school and watched CHiPs. I thought this was the norm, I really did. I had no clue as to how black and white kids functioned at home/school/amongst friends because my experience was/is of the rice and bean variety, which by the way is so delicious on so many levels. Now that I think of it, both of those shows can be snuggled up under the Latino television umbrella courtesy of “Dos Mujeres Un Poncherella.” I always wanted to know what was on the other side of the mountains that provided the backdrop for my childhood full of baseball games, wrestling matches on my front lawn, long winded bike rides in the hot California sun and wonder by way of late nights spent staring at the stars impersonating Nostradamus the best way I knew how: what did the world have waiting for me? Warren’s experience was on the other side of the San Gabriel Mountains and to this day it still is.

“This world go crazy, it’s an emergency.” - Manu Chao

The Strip was crazy that weekend, despite the fun, despite The Beatles LOVE experience it made me ill to observe the culture of capitalism at its Toxic Avenger peak and not the culture of a people. MTV truly spawned a monster. I’m a huge fan of authenticity; authenticity in character, in love, in people. In some cases, teeth weren’t even authentic. Groupies were rolling hella deep; T&A extraordinaires I thought. I heard twenty/thirty somethings spitting out lyrics about wealth and fame while rocking fake Gucci sweaters. I was saddened by the constant reminder that using the word n*gga is accepted and practiced as freely as the word ‘like’ & ‘um’ is used by my sisters. I’ve heard the Mos Def argument of cool inclusion/exclusion as it relates to the word. Fuck that shit, its origin is in slavery, there’s nothing that can be said or done to eradicate the shame in that portion of American history and keeping remnants in our vocabulary doesn’t help lighten the blow of past and present injustices that continue to plague this country…. see Katrina, The Strip, reparations anyone? Meanings change, definitions evolve, but the use of that word bears devolution, nurtures ignorance and invigorates oppression. The “bling” generation is a sad one folks; a tragic one. It will never, EVER be cool to say Wetback, Spic, Nip, etc. I can lie that at anyone’s feet and walk away without looking back. Martin, Malcolm, Rosa, can I get a witness?

I have no idea what it’s like to be a black individual in American. I don’t know what it’s like to be a little black kid, open up a history book and see my resemblance in chains; where the utter exploitation of one’s ancestors was tolerated, accepted and at worse revered; where one’s blood was bought and sold. If only today the same people could accept homosexuality, a right to choose, and all out diversity as they did the latter in sadder times. It’s a new breed of slavery; one of many.

I saw a documentary about the Louisiana prison system a few years ago, I don’t recall the name of it, but there was a scene worth noting. The camera starts off by filming a black prisoner in the dead of heat working the Louisiana soil with a hoe, the camera then pans out showing other black prisoners chained together. It continues to pan out as a panoramic view of the South’s lush greenery and a white man on a horse with a gun as he watches over the chained prisoners comes into focus. I couldn’t help but think of what a circa 1707 extraterrestrial viewing earth and its inhabitants from deep space would have to say about this. While dismissing the blue and green planet of any civility through observation of the enslavement of its fellow beings, it vows to never return. 200 years later, as our beloved E.T. reflects on a life unfulfilled while having nothing to do as the twilight of a mid-life crisis is upon our green friend, a decision is made to seek redemption and return to the blue and green planet. Upon months and months of a steady diet of ludicrous speed, weaving through the cosmos our friend arrives at the Milky Way. With its sights set on planet earth and a hefty amount of optimism, the destination of choice is the same as before, the Louisiana fields. Surely 200 years is more than enough time to erect the flag of humanity in the most hostile of places. Despite technological advances, the Civil Rights Movement and our increasing ability to annihilate the human race, our world hasn’t changed all that much. The way humans, more so Americans, go about enslaving those institutionally and passively deemed inferior has changed by way of the legal system. Those enslaved in 1707 and imprisoned today are still the same marginalized people of color.

To be honest, I don’t know what the solution is; I just know that it lies in the hands of government, in the hands of corporations and the rich who are all less than willing to take a cut for the sake of the rest of us; the everyday people.

A few folks died that weekend on The Strip, some got arrested, some went to the hospital with injuries, many gambled and lost, while a few played the same game Warren and I played way back when the dusk’s slow dissipation of the hoop was the only thing that could stop me from taking Warren to school on the driveway/b-ball court, Magic Johnson style. As I mentioned earlier, I’m still a little uncertain of what lies on the other side of those metaphorical mountains but at least as an optimistic skeptic adult I have an idea of why they are there.


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