The Casino at the End of the Universe

Blackjack for Dummies

I have a friend who gambles. She puts money into slot machines and plays games at tables. She refers to Las Vegas as “Vegas” and seems to go there every other month.

I was amazed at this until I found out that these trips cost her nothing. To encourage gamblers to come, the casinos have programs that let you accumulate points for everything you do there, for every breathless bet. You can redeem the points for charter flights out of Oakland, for hotel rooms, meals, show tickets, all kinds of things.

Aileen has attained diamond status in one of these schemes, which means that she gets even more for her points. It also means that she has to keep going on these trips in order to maintain her status. And so it came to be that I was invited on an all-expenses paid jaunt to a casino in the middle of the desert in Laughlin, Nevada, USA.

Elite Airways

The flight was a charter out of Oakland on a Monday afternoon. In a remote corner of the airport, a tall guy with a curly mustache was yelling something about a gate change. I looked around and noticed that all the passengers for this  excursion appeared to be collecting social security. It was the midweek senior special to Harrah’s in the desert.

And so, our merry old group took off on holiday. The staff on the plane did their best to feed the festive atmosphere with free drinks and organized games. We played bag o bucks, a lottery game with twenty dollar bills. Wow, there are big spenders on this flight, I thought to myself, intimidated. I was appalled at the thought of betting twenty dollars at such odds. The other passengers looked like retirees who saved coupons and counted nickels at home, but on vacation in their comped luxury rooms they were prepared to be high rollers, it seemed.

Pretty soon, everyone was ordering a second round. The flight was starting to get raucus, laughter and conversation shouted above the engine noise. The senior citizen version of spring break in Cabo was on its way to Laughlin.


Across the aisle from me sat a guy named Tony, in his late fifties, basketball beer belly, black t-shirt and baggy shorts. He was loudly introducing himself to a guy two rows back while the stewardess helped him with a seatbelt extender. A large round watch with a complicated dial was on a plastic band around his wrist. He let everyone know he was a tile contractor from Marin. The quiet guy next to him was his partner, but Tony was the boss.

The guy in back was Buzz, balding with a bushy grey mustache. He was in a grey t-shirt and jeans held up by black suspenders. He had a gold watch and a drooping wife with freckles. We learned from his shouted response that he was a retired fireman from San Bruno.

Tony ordered a Jack and Coke and took charge of the conversation. He let Buzz know about his corner lot house, his SUV, his wife and dog. He tipped both stewardesses $5. When we landed, he stepped back to let us deplane first. Charming man.

Harrah’s House of Horrors

An old woman with hennaed hair was chewing gum on the bus that took us to Harrah’s from the airport. In the hotel lobby, she looked unhappily at a long line of Japanese tourists waiting to check in. But our group’s check-in had been handled by the airline and we were able to go straight to our rooms. A view of ducks swimming on the Colorado River nine flights down, and the Arizona mountains in the distance. Every day a cornucopia of brownies, cookies, and chocolate was left on the counter. Abstinence is not encouraged at Harrah’s.

Like the flight, the hotel was filled with senior citizens, and seemed to be set up to cater to them — while separating them in the friendliest way possible from any excess cash. Wide aisles facilitated the passage of walkers and wheelchairs, and Lipton tea was served at the Fresh Market Square Buffet. The ATM machines dispensed only hundred dollar bills, with a $6 fee.

Slots and Blackjack

Next to the lobby was the main casino, an enormous emporium of fifties gilt and  neon, slightly yellowed with cigarette smoke. A large, inimical room with flickering lights and  incessant  klaxons, it contained rows of noisy slot machines and quieter tables of green felt manned by friendly dealers. Baleful money men lurked in the space behind them and cameras watched from above. There were ashtrays everywhere.

Slot machine bets starSlot Machinet at thirty cents. Each machine has a slot where you insert a twenty dollar bill for credits, and another slot for your frequent-gambler points card. People carry the cards on chains, clipped to their belts or collars. Chaining themselves to the machines, they engage in Pavlovian button-pressing behavior and are rewarded with flashing lights and snatches of TV situation comedy footage.

And occasionally with money. I lost a few dollars, but Aileen made a few, so I figured we were even.


After that, we went to play blackjack.

We sat down at a table with a sign reading “$5 minimum bet”, the cheapest table they had. Aileen bought 20 red chips for $100 from the dealer, a young woman dressed like an usher, and made two little piles on the table.

Now, before going into this gambling thing, I had decided to set a strict limit on the amount of money I could lose. Should I reach that limit, I would immediately stop gambling and just enjoy the free drinks.

The $5 minimum was, in fact, a bit more than I had anticipated. But I knew that you have to be firm in these situations, so I decided I had to stick to my original plan. I peeled a twenty out of my wallet and handed it to the dealer. She seemed to hesitate for a moment before giving me four red chips.

My plan was to bet these one at a time, making them last as long as possible before being forced to quit. Aileen was betting two chips at a time, but she was Diamond level. I suppose it was expected of her.

Unfortunately, my stake did not last very long. I agonized over every decision to hit or stand, the dealer cheerfully encouraging me to make up my mind.  But even though Aileen was helping me with strategy and arithmetic, my chips lasted less than an hour. Much less, actually.

I realized it was time to quit, but then I looked over and saw that Aileen had now arranged her chips into a little model of the Great Wall, flanked by two big towers, with some green ones piled on the side like an outpost.  It turned out that she was doing well and was less than eager to leave.

Reluctantly, I reached for my wallet, wondering if I had another ten. But then Aileen pushed one of her towers over to me and told me I could gamble with that.

Things went better after that. I even won some hands, but the game moved fast and it was hard to keep up.


After a while a guy sat down on my right. His name was Bill and he was from Houston, tall guy in a plaid shirt and jeans. He was betting piles of 4 chips.

Seeing that I was a novice, Bill volunteered to give me advice. He told me that he gave Blackjack lessons back home, and I pictured an after-school program for card enthusiasts or maybe a church group. Bill was kind enough to help me through several hands.

After a while, though, he got a little frustrated at my performance. When he got up to leave, he told me, “I don’t think you’re stupid. You’re just unlucky.” I’m not really sure if he was right.


Despite Bill’s coaching I ended up losing half of Aileen’s tower. I was upset about this until I saw that she had managed to accumulate another one. And another green outpost.

But now one of the ceiling cameras had swiveled around toward her, and at last she looked ready to leave.


Fortunately, we didn’t gamble all the time. There were other things to do. Things that points could be applied to.

One night, there was a concert with three country singers (a trucker and two cowboys — you could tell by the hats). Two of these minstrels carried acoustic guitars but did not play them. One of them encouraged the old people to get up and dance, and finally one couple did get up, but no one else joined them. Boy, did they look dumb.

Another day we went for a boat ride to Lake Havasu, 60 miles down the Colorado River. At the hotel dock, passengers embarked on a 60-foot speedboat powered by two nuclear reactors. We were welcomed on board by Denny, our blonde, crewcut captain, an erstwhile surfer from Modesto who had moved here to enjoy the quiet desert life, the small town charm of Laughlin and its ten casinos.

“Your life vests are under your seats. They may still be damp from the incident on Monday.” Denny was a comedian, in addition to being a captain.

But you could see that he savored the serenity of his idyllic riverine life: roaring downriver in the boat at top speed, slamming over the wakes of other vessels to give his elderly passengers a bouncing thrill.

He was particularly fond of cutting suddenly across the channel to attack groups of resting ducks. The innocent birds thrashed frantically, trying to get airborne and out of the way, but some just weren’t fast enough. Every hull-to-duck slam of mallardicide made Denny whoop with excitement, booming along downriver without pause as a red patina spread gradually across the windshield.

At Lake Havasu City we got to see the London Bridge, which was moved there brick by brick to provide an attraction for tourists who don’t like deserts or gambling. Then we had lunch in a diner and came back. It was a fun day if you weren’t a duck.London Bridge

The International Fun Place

It was 7:30 in the morning when we piled off the bus at Laughlin International Airport for the flight home. I thought about Howard Hughes, as the ramshackle aluminum terminal brought to mind the early days of commercial flight. There were four ground-level gates in one big room, and a sort of café where you could buy shrink-wrapped sandwiches from a woman whose name badge read “Kate”.

Our flight was delayed. The passengers milling about were the same group we had come out with. They seemed somewhat more subdued, this time, maybe because of the early hour. Several people carried shopping bags filled with brownies, room booty for their grandchildren. A bouffant octogenarian with a honey drawl was lobbying the other passengers to support her idea for reorganizing future trips to allow for a proper breakfast at the casino. It wasn’t clear what she wanted us to do about it.

It was true that there weren’t very many breakfast options at the café. I bought a bottle of water for $2.96. At the counter, Kate asked me if I had anything smaller than a twenty. I dug around and found a five. “You’re a nice guy,” she said to me. “I don’t care what other people tell me.” Another comedian. “Do you want your 4 pennies?” They ended up in the tip jar.

In the next half hour, she waited on a few customers at the counter, helped an old man with a walker to a table and brought him his coffee, interceded to calm a boisterous three-year-old, kept cleaning the tables and counter. After a while, I tried to buy a sandwich, but she told me the casino was sending over free lunches because of the delay. When the plane finally arrived, she stashed the tip jar under the counter, put on a reflective jacket, and ran out to help guide passengers across the tarmac.

Kate told us that the airport code for Laughlin is IFP. It stands for International Fun Place. She thought the name was ridiculous.

See more photos of Laughlin at

Toronto Travel Notes

Toronto is a big city in Canada, which is a foreign country. I went there and survived. This is my story.

I went to Toronto for Asha’s wedding. Asha is my grand-niece, and she married a guy in the RCAF. His military status allowed them to hold the ceremony in the officer’s mess of the Canadian Forces College. It was all very formal and British, if in some ways unconventional. Polished floors and coats of arms on the walls. There was even a sword. It was held during the ceremony by the the groom’s sister, who was the best man. The parents conducted the ceremony.

Lake Ontario

The Toronto Beaches

After that, I had a day or two to look around Toronto. Canada’s largest city manages to be both cosmopolitan and reassuringly colonial, not unlike the wedding. A freewheeling modern multiculturalism is fused with a bit of Anglican staidness. It’s a civil place where transit runs on schedule, even if some of the new trams can’t get through snow.  A place where people debate a fair price for top-quality weed, expected to be legalized shortly. A cab driver named Mohammed told me real estate is skyrocketing, and people pay for things with polymer currency , the notion of paying with plastic having become universal.

I stayed at a BnB in my niece’s neighborhood, The Beaches, near Lake Ontario. The marketing drivel you find online describes it as a “relaxed neighborhood” with a “small town vibe”. My place was on the block between the beach and a commercial strip on Queen Street (“vibrant”). So, I decided to walk a loop down Queen and back up the boardwalk that follows the beach.

Queen Street

The neighborhood on the slopes above the lake is made up of large brick houses with chimneys and small, damp yards. It is at once cramped and roomy. I walked along Queen Street’s safe, narrow sidewalks among polite seniors and past crowded coffee shops and sushi bars that alternated with old brick apartments. The apartment houses had small patches of grass by their entrances where narrow lawn sales sometimes took place. On my corner, one of these yards had accumulated a more or less permanent contingent of lawn chairs and ashtrays. I ran a gauntlet of smoke each time I passed.

Along the lake shore there is a park full of black squirrels and dogs. The two species appear to have overlapping habitats that also include the streets of the town, but only the dogs venture onto the beach and into the intertidal, where they fetch atlatl-flung sticks and leave feces. Along the boardwalk aging blondes stroll among Chinese couples and accented European professors. Piles of rocks form scenic jetties along the gravel beach. The lake waters glisten. The public restrooms are actually unlocked, and families getting out of parked cars make use of them before heading to the beach.

Something Like Graffiti

Kensington Market

Later on, I went closer to downtown and the vibe was different. The sidewalk on Spadina Avenue was busy with office girls chatting on their way to lunch. A blonde and a fat brunette with a baby stroller were leaning against a doorway smoking. At the corner of Dundas, a Chinese woman stood alone screaming at her phone. Dundas separates Chinatown from an area called Kensington Market.

Kensington is a neighborhood of turbocharged bohemian kitsch. The buildings are completely covered with an amalgamation of contrived graffiti and painted urban mural. There are several blocks of this, a massive chamber-of-commerce retailing ploy spawning a made-to-order bohemian market. “Indie shops” and “cheese shops”. Souvenirs and coffee. There are Indian textiles and incense burners, and of course there is reggae. You can’t sell souvenirs of Toronto without reggae.

Further on there is Graffiti Alley, literally just a random garage-lined back alley nearby that has been spray painted mercilessly until the camera-bearers came. Is the usurpation of urban graffiti by commercial entities to be detested as cultural appropriation? A good thought to put before the accented professors, but I was too tired for such liberal angst. It was hot. I needed food and beer, and not the gluten free nonsense they were serving around here. I headed toward the neighboring downtown area in search of something more upscale. Colonial, if you will.


Downtown Toronto

Downtown is a forest of towers, just like every other city. Some of them face right onto the sidewalk, while others cluster behind lawns on little campuses. Out in front of the smoke-free office blocks, guys on break congregate, lighting up and talking on their cell phones. You have to go inside for fresh air. But Toronto also offers many small parks, where you can go to escape the glass walls.


I found my way to a very spacious bar where I was given a table in a shaded courtyard and a pint of ale and left alone with my thoughts. I looked around the room, saw businessmen in suits, and recalled the darker suits at the Britannically-tinged wedding. In both cases ties had been loosened once the formalities were over. At the bar, a big Bulgarian with a small head was telling stories to his long-haired friend. Above the open collar of his pink dress shirt, a small bubble of chin with a thin fringe of beard looked like graffiti on a bowling pin. I ordered the fish and chips for lunch and waited ‘til the time came to meet my niece.

Click on any image to enlarge. More photos of Toronto can be seen here

Extended Vacation Rentals in Japan

We found long term rentals in Kyoto and Fukuoka.

If you’re traveling abroad for any extended period of time, hotels and endless restaurant meals can take a toll on your budget. When you want to spend a few weeks or more in a single place, one idea is to look for an apartment with a kitchen that can be had on a short term rental. Vacation rentals by owners (VRBOs) and airBNB sublets are common solutions, but in Japan, and especially outside of Tokyo, such places can be hard to find. We found one that caters to tourists in the Kyoto suburbs, and another in Fukuoka that is used mostly by Japanese salarymen.

Apple House is a tiny cottage operated as a vacation rental by Hiroko and David James.  Apple House KyotoWe rented it in February as a cheaper alternative to hotels for our monthlong stay in Kyoto. David met us at the train station and showed us there the first time. We had to walk the last part of the way: Apple House is located on a street too narrow for cars (deliveries come by motorcycle), flanked by a narrow canal.

Downstairs, a minuscule kitchen led to a freezing porch with a clothes washer and a couple of clotheslines. These were a bit tricky to use: we would put our washed underwear on them and it would freeze and become rigid overnight. In the summer humidity, I was told, it would simply remain wet. We spent very little time on the patio. Inside, there was a living room with a propane heater. A steep staircase led upstairs to two bedrooms with tatami floors, and futons upon which we slept.

 Apple House Tatami Room

_FireTruck100223_0046_LRWe shopped locally in Sugakuin for food. We were eating salmon every night: you could buy a steak in the market for 3 bucks. We got to know our neighborhood, a bedroom borough mixture of new houses and brick apartments in close proximity, and old truck farms interspersed on a hillside above the city. There were hidden treasures: an old temple on the hillside, with an ancient fire truck in the yard; a country residence belonging to the emperor, with manicured winter gardens. And a half hour ride on the number 5 bus got you to downtown Kyoto.


In Fukuoka, on the southern island of Kyushu, we could find no similar VRBO. But we did manage to unearth Tenjin Success, a large tower of efficiency studio apartments which seemed to be part of a nationwide chain. Japanese companies often station employees far from home for long stints, and these apartments, designed for single occupancy, meet their need for cheap housing. Since the units are not marketed to tourists at all, enquiries in English may frighten the staff and be ignored.

Fukuoka towersThe Tenjin area was a congested nest of apartment towers, with restaurants and nightclubs on narrow streets by another river. On the fringes of more fashionable areas, it was in walking distance to everything and had a couple of great izakayas. Fukuoka, a far more autochthonous city than Kyoto, is more attuned to  tourists from Korea and China than from the west. It’s attractions are limited, but it made an excellent hub for rental-car explorations of the island of Kyushu.

Astoria (Oregon)

Oregon’s down-at-the-heels port city on the Columbia

Astoria Column detail
Native Lives

I was a kid who would look on maps and see another Astoria, on the other coast, the Pacific, and who wanted to go there. The map showed a port city, some distance downstream from Portland, and I imagined there were ships in addition to brick buildings like the Astoria I was growing up in, on the Atlantic. This year, finally, I went to that other Astoria.

Fort Astoria was a fur trading post built by the John Jacob Astor’s Pacific Fur Company in 1811. There is a 125 foot column in a park on a hill that overlooks the city. It was put up by the Astor family in honor of themselves and sports a mural depicting  scenes from the lives of the natives that their ancestors displaced. Those who climb the interminable spiral staircase are able to see all the way to Megler, Washington (unless there is fog), which is said to be inspiring.


View of Astoria-Megler Bridge
View from Coxcomb Hill

Down below is the town, a riverfront harbor city hit hard by recession, dog-eared home of the Scandinavian Midsummer Festival. There are a few brick warehouses near the docks but, unlike the Astoria of my eastern provenance, the buildings here are mostly paint-starved wood.


Megler-Astoria Bridge at dusk
Evening Fog
Freighter passes under the Astoria-Megler Bridge

The Astoria-Megler Bridge across the Columbia dominates the town, towering over the main road whether you’re coming from east or west. A tiny park at the river’s edge clings to the base of the final tower on the Oregon side. It features plaques welcoming visitors to Astoria and more murals celebrating displaced aboriginals.

When in Astoria, one simply must take pictures of the many wooden posts in the river, soulful remnants of rotted docks. I learned this by researching my trip on Flickr, where enthusiasts may find many excellent contributions to the genre. These are mine. Click to embiggen.

River Posts
Soulful Remnants I
Posts in Columbia River
Soulful Remnants II

Chihuly Gardens

Dale Chihuly’s followers have produced a colorful forest of similar forms.

chihuly glass sculpture Last summer we spent a few days in Seattle, a grunge-hipster city of street markets, art, and a whole lot of beer. One of the attractions we visited was Chihuly Gardens, a museum of forms created by students of glass sculptor Dale Chihuly. It’s located in the Space Needle complex downtown and was predictably overrun with camera-laden tourists like me.

The exhibits consist of dark mirrored spaces filled with brightly colored plant-like forms. These are arranged in large arrays punctuated by the occasional bowl, with dramatic lighting to enhance the effect. There is also an outdoor garden, where the lighting is less dramatic, generally a bleak sun filtered through Seattle’s rain. A few species of glass frond seem to thrive in the fog.

InChihuly glass sculpture garden fact they are the same few species that also dominate indoors. Although the initial impression given by the museum is one of diversity, this is achieved mostly by the use of color. Probably only a dozen different glass forms populate the whole place.

After visiting the museum, you can grab lunch next door at the Collections Cafe, where an erudite clientele takes part in a fare heavy on blue cheese burgers and garlic fries under a ceiling lined with hanging accordions (are they playing suspended chords?). Seattle, it must be noted, is also home to the Petosa Accordion Museum. The name of the cafe is probably an allusion to what seems to be the pervading ideology of the complex: admission to the museum is $19. It’s free if you’re under 3, but if you break it, you buy it.