Las Vegas-a city of unlimited memories

The post I started for L included Las Vegas, Laughlin, and Lake Tahoe (plus nearby Reno). These are all cities in Nevada, the Silver State, where I spent a lot of time and/or where momentous life events took place.  After some consideration, I dropped the last three cities and decided to limit myself to my Vegas experiences alone because, although the commercial says “What Happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” let’s face it, for many former L.A. area yuppies, as I was in the late 1970s and early 80s, you might carry some baggage/experiences from this other City That Never Sleeps, especially if you move to any other part of the country later in life.

For any reader who has been raised under a rock, I offer the following, and obvious description of this neon lit oasis that rises out of the desert.  Las Vegas is an internationally renowned major resort city known primarily for gambling, shopping, fine dining and nightlife.  Not surprisingly, then, the city bills itself as The Entertainment Capital of the World.   After working on this post, for this place in my life, for just short of ten months now, it finally dawned on me that the subject is just too large, has too much history, in general and also more personally, over such a long period of time and covering so many social and geopolitical touchstones, that I must create a whole series of posts about what I will also abbreviate as LV.

orig dtlv glitter gulch

The Original Glitter Gulch

Part 1 – Semi-Ancient (early 20th Century)History and Development of the Tourist Mecca

The city was founded by ranchers and railroad workers but quickly found that its greatest asset was not its springs but its casinos and proximity to Los Angeles.  This desert metropolis, in just over a century of existence, has been built on gambling, vice and other forms of entertainment.  Where better to experience the rites of passage into adulthood which, in the US, coincides with twenty one years of existence on this planet?  Although the place is over a hundred years old, I’m going to try to limit myself to just the high points of what happened there before I first hit town, and what happened to the place before it started to be overrun by Gens X-Y and Millenials and whatever other names there may be for those who reached the magic age of 21 around the same time as my daughters in this, the 21st century.

The first noteworthy event that kicked off the development of this city as a city occurred coincidentally at the beginning of the 20th century, with the arrival of the railroad linking Las Vegas to the Rockies and the West Coast. The future downtown was platted and auctioned by railroad company backers, and Las Vegas was incorporated in 1911.  The Plaza Hotel and Casino today stands on the site of the original Union Pacific Railroad depot, which must be why I remember it as the Union Plaza, and for a while it was the only railroad station in the world located inside a hotel-casino.

Nevada outlawed gambling in 1910 but the practice continued in speakeasies and illicit casinos. By the time gambling was legalized again in 1931, organized crime already had roots in the city.  Its related embrace of Old West-style freedoms—gambling and prostitution—provided a perfect home for East Coast organized crime.  Another new draw for “the up and comers of 1931,” seeking their fortunes in the middle of the Nevada desert, was the initiation of construction on the massive Boulder Dam (later renamed the Hoover Dam), which drew thousands of workers to a site just east of the city. Casinos and showgirl venues opened up on the town’s sole paved road, to attract the project’s workers. When the dam was completed in 1936, cheap hydroelectricity powered the flashing signs of Vegas’ “Glitter Gulch.”

In 1941 the El Rancho Vegas resort opened on a section of U.S. 91 just outside the city’s jurisdiction. Other hotel-casinos soon followed, and the section of highway became known as “the Strip” named by Los Angeles police officer Guy McAfee, after his (and my) hometown’s Sunset Strip.

el rancho vegas

El Rancho Vegas – Before LV Grew!

Israel – My admittedly biased perspective

As a whatever kind I want to call myself Jew, the history, presence and land of Israel continue to exert a great deal of influence on my world view and the way I live my life here in the US.  Israel, just in case there is anyone out there who does not already know this, is at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea, bounded by Lebanon to the north, Syria to the northeast, Jordan and the West Bank to the east, and Egypt and the Gaza Strip to the southwest.  More importantly than its historically unfortunate location, at least in my mind, Israel, in its Basic Laws, defines itself as a Jewish and Democratic State, even though this tiny and newish country has no official religion.  I won’t go into a lot of the history or current politics, but just want to give a little background about how and why Israel came to be, and why it still is so important to me, even now, nearly forty years since my one and only visit there.

Israel was established as a homeland for the Jewish people and is often referred to as a Jewish state. The country’s Law of Return grants all Jews and those of Jewish ancestry the right to Israeli citizenship.  Since the existence of the earliest Jewish diaspora, the hopes and yearnings of Jews living in exile have been an important theme of the Jewish belief system, based on historical ties but also, unfortunately, sometimes as a matter of life and death for anybody who is identified as a Jew, even if they don’t self-identify as one, in some places in the world even today.

The first wave of modern Jewish migration to Ottoman-ruled Palestine, known as the First Aliyah, began in 1881, as Jews fled pogroms in Eastern Europe.  Pogrom is a Russian word and is defined by Wikipedia as a violent riot aimed at massacre or persecution of an ethnic or religious group, particularly one aimed at Jews.  Although the Zionist movement already existed in practice, Austro-Hungarian journalist Theodor Herzl is credited with founding political Zionism, a movement which sought to establish a Jewish state in the Land of Israel, thus offering a solution to the so-called Jewish Question (this phrase is an eerily familiar carryover to the 20th Century) of the European states. The Second Aliyah (1904–14), began after the Kishinev pogrom, which was not even the last one to happen in Europe.

During World War I, British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour sent the Balfour Declaration of 1917 to Baron Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community.  The Declaration stated that Britain intended for the creation of a Jewish “national home” within the Palestinian Mandate.  After World War II, Britain found itself in intense conflict with the world Jewish community over Jewish immigration limits to this promised Jewish “national home.”  At the same time, hundreds of thousands of Jewish Holocaust survivors and refugees sought a new life far from their destroyed communities in Europe. Palestine-based Jewish/Zionist activists attempted to bring these refugees to the “Promised Land” but many were turned away or rounded up and placed in offshore and/or barb wire enclosed detention camps by the British.  Finally, after a lot of strife and some death in the interim, Israel was admitted as a member of the United Nations on 11 May 1949.

My Jewish father and his divorced mother were able to leave Germany, though I do not at this point know exactly when or how, and get to England sometime in the 1930s.  My dad was born in 1930, so I’m pretty sure he was just a small boy when they made this big move, all on their own, I imagine, and descended in the strange big city of London just as WWII was looming on America’s horizon, and may have been descending, along with bombs, from the skies over the city, courtesy of a possible pending and potentially deadly for my dad German invasion.  From 7 September 1940, one year into the war, London was bombed by the Luftwaffe for 57 consecutive nights. Mom tells me that it was on one of those nights, as people streamed into the deep-level shelters that were built under London Underground stations to protect its citizens during The Blitz, that Grandma met the person who would make it possible for her to make a living as a cook for Turkish embassy and military personnel stationed in the city.  I guess her acquisition of this position, as well as her understandable concern for the safety of her one and only child, led her to find alternate housing for Dad with a Quaker family in what should have been the more peaceful countryside in Surrey.  Mom has often told anyone who’ll listen, that Grandma had to give her written permission for Dad to stay outside as he watched the fireworks of the German bombs that landed elsewhere, though I’d guess still uncomfortably close by for any mother’s comfort.

I’ll probably never know if, when, or how much abuse my grandparents and parents endured as Jews in Germany, in England, and even in the good old USA.  I’ll probably never know if they ever feared for their lives during any of those incidents.  I just know that, for whatever reason, be it stubbornness or tradition or even possibly hope or pride, they have always been and will always be Jewish, and they passed this belief system on to me and my sister.  As I was growing up in Southern California, to the best of my recollection, I experienced just some mild peer-related discomfort due to my little discussed Jewish heritage and lesser observed Jewish traditions, like celebrating Hanukkah instead of Xmas and missing school on the High Holidays. Way back then, in the 1960s and 70s, the bat mitzvah, a ceremony recognizing a girl’s coming of age within Judaism, was not as common as it is today and I don’t know if my parents had ever even considered it as an option for me or my sister. They did, however, send us to religious school, well into our high school years, with the culmination of that experience and education taking place in a confirmation ceremony at the Temple, right around the end of tenth grade, I believe.  That was a pretty impressionable time for me, and probably for most kids, as we painfully, in fits and starts, matured into adults.  That was also a time of a lot of turmoil in and around Israel, as it fought a series of wars with its much larger Arab neighbors, who at various times since its birth in 1948, and from various locations, had tried to destroy the Jewish state (kind of like Iran and what still exists of the Syria’s government today) and sweep all its Jewish citizens into the Mediterranean, assuming no non Arab countries would take them as refugees, as few had thirty years earlier.

I had Jewish friends in college and joined the Jewish sorority, Alpha Epsilon Phi, on my campus for my last year or two there.  I had a Jewish boyfriend that I’d met in band there, though by the time I got my degree in 1976, I knew I had forced my mom to the harsh realization that her baby would not emerge from there with the degree she wanted me to have, the Mrs.!  She did, however, offer me, possibly as a substitute for the missed bat mitzvah and to maybe find a future Jewish husband, an all-expenses paid six week trip to Israel and Europe that summer.  I took this trip with the non-college grad daughter of one of Mom’s divorced Jewish friends and it was of course organized by a Jewish travel agency.

In July 1976 an airliner was hijacked during its flight to Tel Aviv by Palestinian guerrillas and landed at Entebbe, Uganda. Israeli commandos carried out an operation in which 102 out of 106 Israeli hostages were successfully rescued.  I was touring Israel as these events took place.  I think we had just left the Golan Heights, where it was I could feel how dangerously close the area captured from Syria and occupied by Israel during the Six-Day War was to populated and exposed areas in Israel.  When we entered Jerusalem and shopped in its open air markets we saw, and may have even picked up on our bus, Israeli soldiers who strolled or sat casually in their olive uniforms, machine guns over their soldiers, which I initially did my best to try to overlook.

During the two weeks I was in Israel, the feeling grew inside me, though I have only a vague memory now of how it actually came to be.   In the middle of all that potential danger, I felt safe.  Given the political direction of my own country now, where, heaven forbid, discrimination among citizens based on religion could become a real fact of life, and in light of the discrimination actually experienced by own family on that basis not so long ago, I am still comforted by the reality of Israel today.

Florence, In Italy! XXOO

Florence contains numerous museums and art galleries where some of the world’s most important works of art are held. The city is one of the best preserved Renaissance centers of art and architecture in the world and has a high concentration of art, architecture and culture. Florence is believed to have the greatest concentration of art (in proportion to its size) in the world.  Thus, cultural tourism is particularly strong, with world-renowned museums such as the Uffizi selling over 1.6 million tickets. Due to Florence’s artistic and architectural heritage, it has been ranked by Forbes as one of the most beautiful cities in the world.  I agree with this assessment, and remember it fondly still for some of the beautiful artworks I saw and purchased there.

Florence is famous for its history: a center of medieval European trade and finance and one of the wealthiest cities of the time, it is considered the birthplace of the Renaissance, and has been called “the Athens of the Middle Ages”. The Historic Centre of Florence attracts millions of tourists each year, and I was one of those in the summer of 1976 as I ate my way across Europe on one of those culturally satirized and based on reality two week guided group bus tours.  I remember Athens as extremely dirty and smoggy that summer, which we were told was exacerbating and speeding the crumbling process of all of its precious marble statues and buildings.  Too bad, so sad, no idea what they state of the air or works in that city are today.

My journey included a stop in Austria, unscheduled because the bus broke down, near one of those iconic Alpine meadows, green with fresh grass and blooming with colorful native flowers.  This was where I had my “Sound of Music” experience that quickly ended when I stepped in a lesser known feature of iconic Alpine meadows, the cowpie.  This post led me to dig out the photo album of that trip.  I had been dreading looking at those pictures since, by the time that trip ended, I was a roly poly 180 pounds at least, on my 5’4” (to be generous) average-sized frame.

cookie box on bus

I didn’t even have to flip the pages to see in my mind’s eye the photo I took at that unscheduled Austrian stop.  It’s a picture of a colorful box of cookies leaning against the back of my seat, posed on a colorful beach towel which covered that hot seat in the bright sunshine.

As I ate my way through Italy in particular, including other stops in Venice, Pisa and Rome, slurping and wolfing down the wonderful fresh gelato that was available from carts all over the place, I remember having the following thoughts in each of these other cities.  In Venice, where our tour naturally included a gondola ride and a visit to St. Mark’s Square, I remember thinking (1) Wouldn’t this be romantic if I was here by myself with some studly guy who could overlook my acne and obesity? And (2) How will I protect my gelato, of which I don’t want to miss a single drop, from the pigeon droppings?  One of those bombs may have landed in my hair, which could be washed out later, but I couldn’t remove it and still finish my gelato, right?

 

pisa (2)

 

 

In Pisa I got to the top of its famously leaning tower. Don’t ask me how I got my body up there; I think there must have been an elevator. There was a great city view from that point but my main thought was fear that my added weight might cause it to lean more!

 

 

trevi

In Rome, I threw one coin (as opposed to the traditional and hopelessly romantic three) in the famous Trevi Fountain. Note that the photo of me in front of the fountains barely shows the top portion of my body. That’s because by now I was wearing that damned light cotton sleeveless tent more often than anything else, since by then it was one of the few garments that I owned that wasn’t too tight!

Three_coins

 

 

This was the theme of 1954’s Three Coins in the Fountain and the Academy Award-winning song by that name which introduced the picture. The plot went that, on their way into town, the three main characters, all single gals, stop at the fountain where they share the popular tale that, according to legend, if each throws a coin in the fountain and makes a wish to return to Rome, she will. Coins are purportedly meant to be thrown using the right hand over the left shoulder.  Also note the no longer politically correct lyrics as you enjoy this rendition of the movie’s Academy Award nominated theme song.

 

 

 

We visited the Uffizi in Florence.  It is one of the most famous and important art galleries in the world, and it has a very large collection of international and Florentine art. The gallery is articulated in many halls, cataloged by schools and chronological order. I don’t recall that any of them made a big impression on my then young, just barely 21, eyes at the time, though I did comprehend that an appreciation of great and famous art would be a quality that the first female Secretary of State, as I aspired to be then, having just completed by BA in International Relations, would be expected to have.  I also liked the way that name just rolls of the tongue, making even an Ugly American sound vaguely Italian.

The Galleria dell’ Accademia houses a Michelangelo collection, including the David, which made a big impression on my psyche for many reasons. First, it plainly shows probably the largest penis any living, breathing, red-blooded American girl could actually see on an Italian man, even if he is only a stone one. Really, it gave me an opportunity to inspect an anatomically correct model of this organ in vivid detail. I had not seen one up close in the flesh yet, so I wanted to learn a little about its construction to prepare myself for that event.

david

 

 

We were also told that the eyes were carved in such a way that the viewer felt that they were following you as crossed in front of the statue.  Wikipedia describes them less vividly as “The eyes of David, with a warning glare, were turned towards Rome” when the statue was initially installed in front of the Palazzo della Signoria in 1504.

 

Of the many bridges in Florence, one in particular stands out for many tourists— the Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge), whose most striking feature is the multitude of shops built upon its edges, held up by stilts. This area was, of course, a great spot to indulge in some “retail therapy,” an activity I engage in when I’m feeling lonely, have some time to kill and/or need to just get out and walk around a bit, even if I don’t (or don’t have to or want to or can’t afford to) purchase anything. Of course, I wanted to get some artistic souvenirs in the places I visited, and I was so enamored of and enchanted by Florence that I purchased two especially significant items there.

florentine print

One was a box of stationary with a stunningly beautiful, fantastic and brightly colored Florentine tapestry pattern. It was so beautiful I even held on to the box for a long time after I’d gone through the paper and similarly decorated envelopes. The other was a mosaic pendant in the shape of the Star of David mounted to a neck chain by two opposing points on a short and now extremely tarnished chain.  I still have it, though it fits more like a choker now so it’s almost uncomfortable to wear even if or when I might have an occasion to.

florentine necklace 2