NV Day 2 - Gangsters, Gold, and Gratuity
Today I got a late start on exploring because I was having a really nice time hanging out with my cousins and my uncle, watching TV and chatting. As far as delays go, it was about as pleasant as could be, and again after so much time on my own on the road it felt a bit like making up for lost time with family connection.
When I did hit the road, I started out by getting a nice lunch at Carson Kitchen. Located in downtown Vegas, this chic little restaurant is the brainchild of a celebrated local chef, Kerry Simon, and was devised to offer fine dining in a casual setting as part of large city-wide renovations of some of downtown’s seedier establishments. It’s really classy and upscale looking on the inside, but the food largely consists of Americana classics like burgers, pizza, and fried chicken albeit done very well and frequently with unusual and creative flavor pairings (i.e. pretzel encrusted, maple glazed pork chops) and the best part is nothing’s really gonna break the bank. I found the environment to be really welcoming and both the waitress and the cook checked up on me, joked around, and offered suggestions which made me really like the place even before I tried their wares. The restaurant had shown up on my radar because I was looking up the best burgers in Vegas, and they kept popping up. I stuck to my guns and ordered their Butter Burger, and I was not disappointed. The burger was super juicy, the bun was perfectly toasted and buttered, and the secret weapon was a combination of soft creamy boursin cheese and hard aged cheddar for a wonderful mix of flavors. Even better the burger came with a side of homemade tater tots, which were quite possibly the best tots I’ve ever had. Perhaps the old tongue twister is true and better batter does make better butter burger.
After lunch, I took a walk around the block to work that bad larry off a bit. To help my walking, I got some coffee at a place called the Black Cup Coffee Co. It was a nice little place, with a solid iced coffee and a fun neon sign out a front to Vegas it up a bit. The downtown area I was in was by no means as busy or chaotic as the famous Strip, but it did have a pretty wacky outdoor mall called the Fremont Street Experience, which essentially turned a pedestrian throughway into an amusement park complete with a a giant zip line called Slotzilla, presumably created when a normal slot machine was exposed to gamma radiation. Slotzilla did actually look legitimately pretty fun, but in true amusement park fashion it was crazy over priced so I just enjoyed it from a distance.
My next stop was the nearby Mob Museum, a uniquely Vegas museum conceived of by former Mayor and Mob Defense Attorney Oscar Goodman to tell the history of organized crime in America and those who fought against it. It’s a story Vegas plays a pretty large role in, and there’s a weird charm to a museum that so openly calls out some of the worst elements of its own hometown. It’s also a fascinating lens through which to look at American history because the roles of law enforcement and organized crime in shaping the history and progress of the US is huge but rarely delved into in history textbooks. What I did know about the mob, I mostly knew from Scorsese movies, so i thought it would be pretty cool to hear the real story.
The first thing that struck me about the museum is that the building itself is just very impressive. It’s housed in the former Post Office and Courthouse built in 1933 and it’s an amazing bit of classic art deco architecture restored to near-perfect conditions. Even the bathrooms looked classy as hell!
The first exhibit in the museum was dedicated to vintage photographs tracing the origin of the mob in the US, discussing the perfect storm of an influx of immigrants around the turn of the 20th century, overcrowding in cities, discrimination in the police force, corruption in politics, and lax business regulations. It’s a lot to cover in two rooms of photographs, but the actual photos are incredible and it provides a great overview of everything to come. Right off the bat they establish the mixed view a lot of Americans had for the mob, because they were undoubtedly committing crimes and hurting people but in a corrupt system of justice without them nobody was looking out for European immigrants. That being said, I’m sure the mob sort of liked it that way relying on racism and nationalism to keep those poor immigrants dependent on them after they had helped them out. Basically, at that point in history (and unfortunately just about every point in history) everyone was looking to exploit the helpless be they criminals or not.
The next gallery focused in a bit more on the mob’s origins in Vegas in particular, collecting artifacts and photos from the very first casinos. The mob in Atlantic City had already established casinos as a great venue for both making money and laundering money you already had, and the vast Nevada desert was basically an untapped market where they would be able to cater to pioneers and travelers with minimal government or legal oversight. At least, no oversight that couldn’t be easily bought out once they were raking in that casino money. It was kind of crazy looking at the very first bars and casinos in Vegas, because they look so relatively shabby and quickly put together (because they were) compared to the opulent behemoths that now dominate the Vegas Strip. They also had a fun virtual roulette table that was actually a trivia game about Vegas history. I got everything right, but you don’t win any real money which is disappointing but probably a good lesson about the perils of gambling.
The next room was all about possibly the largest period of Mob expansion, Prohibition. The bootleg liquor market catapulted the mob to new heights of both profit and violence. The curation here was really neat with all the photographs screenprinted onto barrels and crates to give the whole room a little added speakeasy vibe. This was probably my favorite section of the museum, just because I find that time in American history really fascinating. It’s such a weird mix of puritanism and hedonism. The fact that there was also such vibrant art and music despite such rampant violence and poverty has also always fascinated me. I don’t think art needs conflict to thrive, but the 20s-30s sure make a powerful case for it.
Of course, one of the defining features of the prohibition era was the cat and mouse games of the cops and robbers. The museum, while dedicated to mob history, didn’t pick sides, choosing to highlight both famous coppers and notorious outlaws. On the more noble side of the law my favorite items included photographs of Izzy Einstein and Moe Smith, a postal clerk and a cigar store worker turned federal agents, who were the wackiest and most successful capturers of bootleggers using outlandish costumes like gravediggers, salesmen, and even a husband and wife! Who knew Some Like It Hot was maybe more of a historically accurate farce than I ever expected. Another notable lawman was not a law man at all. Eunice Carter was the first African-American female prosecutor to serve in New York City, and she nearly single handedly uncovered and prosecuted a massive prostitution ring of over 300 brothels in the Big Apple, taking them down and striking a major blow towards taking down the network of bigtime mobster Lucky Luciano. Personally, I don’t necessarily think prostitution should be a crime, and if it is then the sex workers shouldn’t be the primary ones held responsible (I think that like prohibition all vice laws probably create more harm than good no matter how personally unappealing the vice is), but either way the story of a Black woman in the 1920s upstaging all of NYC’s law enforcement is too bad ass not too love. On the shadier side of the law, the big ticket items for me were one of Al Capone’s personal pistols and photographs of Old Blue Eyes himself, Frank Sinatra, being buddy buddy with noted mobsters at a Vegas nightclub.
Speaking of Some Like It Hot, the star item of this exhibit and possibly the whole museum was the actual wall from the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago complete with bullet holes. The wall was thought to be bad luck in Chicago, so the building was demolished. A Canadian businessman bought up the bricks to try to sell them as a novelty item for a club or restaurant. He was only able to auction off about 100 before he died, so the remaining bricks were bought up by the Mob Museum and reassembled into a facsimile of their former glory.
A macabre finale to this exhibit was a replica of the electric chair from Sing Sing, where many mobsters spent their final moments. Now it’s a popular spot for tourist photo opps. Personally I’d rather not imagine a love one being electrocuted for crimes against humanity, but I guess life is just odd like that.
After the chair, I went down a level to the next floor of galleries. The Estes Kefauver’s senate committee trials of 1950 aimed at finally bringing down the mob. The trial didn’t totally succeed in that goal but it did bring down hundreds of small operations, and also coincided with the rise of television shining a much larger spotlight on mob activity directly into the homes of everyday Americans. While these combined factors didn’t have Kefauver’s desired goal of crip[ling the mob, it certainly made everything a bit more difficult for them going further. The museum was a particularly good venue for this exhibit, because it was at one time a courthouse and moreover one of the courthouses where the Kefauver trials were held, so when they played videos of famous mobsters like Frank Costello, Meyer Lanskey, and Lucky Luciano testifying in court, the screens were actually right in front of the witness stands and it had a real air of verisimilitude. Even better, there was a full bar while you waited for the mob videos to start so I got a little local craft beer with my museum experience.
The actual trial videos were the star of the show, and I can only imagine what it must have been like watching that in 1950 when many people still thought the mob was just something on TV. Another highlight for me though was this vintage Time Magazine cover dedicated to Kefauver, but also including an illustration of the commonly used metaphor that mob was like an octopus with its tentacles in every aspect of crime. It’s a very spooky octopus, but the one sexy woman’s leg never ceases to make me crack up, because someone was able to draw that and submit it to Time without even a hint of doubt in themselves. .
Up next came an exhibit about the rise of the Vegas Strip into the neon juggernaut it is today. There was a lot of vintage memorabilia, art, and kitsch from the casinos. It was all very glitzy and extravagant, and it did a great job of capturing the unique character of Vegas as city that was built for crime and pleasure by crime and pleasure, but with real flourishes of art and charm thrown in for good measure. When you needed a break from the Neon, there were lots of fascinating photos and artifacts from these halcyon days. Highlights for me included: Meyer Lansky surveying the desert during the building of the Flamingo club like a surly Julius Caesar; a gaggle of Cardinals drinking with mobsters who invited them to the inauguration of a new church on the Strip; and a whole display dedicated to Robert Maheu, a man with one of the most surreal lives ever who went from being an FBI agent in WWII to Howard Hughes’ personal assistant for 25 years (despite never meeting him face to face), to being hired by the CIA and then tasked with trying to go undercover to get the mob to assassinate Fidel Castro. It would seem way too far-fetched if it wasn’t so well documented!
The last couple exhibits focused on the real extent of what the mob did with less rosy glasses the closer it gets to the modern day. These included an impressive detailed map of sprawling web of organized crime in the 20th century and how it extended into supposedly legitimate businesses, highlighting different businesses, unions, and politicians who are either known to have or suspected of having mob ties. There was also a display of some of the most notorious mob hitmen, and when you see photos and crime scene reports of the actual damage done by these guys, they sound a whole lot less like modern Robin Hood's (as movies sometimes try to present them) and more like cold blooded psychopaths. In particular, as a Bostonian, I was really disturbed to see crime photos from what Whitey Bulger actually did. To this day people in Boston really do minimize his crimes, because he “looked out for his neighborhood” but when you see how casually he just killed men, women, and children he becomes a whole lot less charming and a lot more terrifying. Lastly there was an exhibit on the lower lever about modern day FBI tactics at investigating the mob, including a photo of one of the agents who remained undercover the longest leading to a big bust and inspiring the film Donnie Brasco. It’s an incredible story, , but I have to admit I think the film took some liberties casting Johnny Depp as this guy (right hand picture)
After the Mob, I thought it was only fitting for me to venture into my first casino of the week. I went to the nearby Golden Nugget Casino, because I wanted to see its star attraction: The Hand of Faith. The vaguely handshaped chunk of solid gold was discovered in Australia just 12 feet below the surface and clocks in at a weight of 72 pounds! It is considered the largest single nugget found in the modern day. It was a real sight to behold, and it made up for the fact that in the casino I won absolutely no money on slot machines. I thought the fact that there was a Simpsons themed one would help me, but blind luck doesn’t care about your comedy influences.
After the Gold Nugget, I ventured to another recommended Vegas museum, albeit a much less conventional one: The World Erotic Heritage Museum. I probably would have been more skeptical of this museum (especially since it’s located very close by the Official Hustler Strip Club) but after being surprisingly blown away by the Erotic Art Museum in Miami, I went in much more open-minded. The museum was slightly less artistic than that museum, featuring both more historical displays and explicit pornography (how’s that for a tonal mixture) but the net effect was similar in that the museum took things that are innately human but deemed “vulgar or impolite” and sought to destigmatize them while exploring the social, political, and artistic influence of human sexuality. Even better the whole museum started as the private collection of a reverend who went on to become a scholar in human gender and sexuality studies, which is a more liberated stance then a lot of men of the cloth take.
The tonal variation possible within the museum was wonderfully captured by the first two displays. First came a series of plaster casts of women’s breasts. The display differed from nude sculptures you might see in an art museum however, because it was part of a project seeking to non-judgmentally explore breast augmentation surgery. All the casts were made from women who had not had any surgery but were vocally unhappy with the size and/or shape of their breasts. Behind the casts, there were different posters both explaining the project and listing common reasons for having breast augmentation surgery done ranging from legitimate medical concerns to more elective rationales. Both reasonings are treated as totally valid and understandable, and the display talks about how much social pressure and judgment surrounds breasts and so even if there aren’t any physical ailments being caused the psychological distress could be justification enough for surgery. On a really sweet note though, all the women who had the casts made said that while initially they were unhappy with their breasts, they got a real confidence boost from the casting and from seeing the casts of the other women. It’s a good reminder, that while advertising likes to paint one ideal standard of beauty, real life comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes. While I found that display quite poignant, the next display was a much sillier tonal 180 featuring “the world’s largest sex bike”. If those words in that order are baffling to you, you are not alone as I had no clue what that might mean. In reality it was a massive double decker four seated tandem bike surrounded by beautiful greenery. The sex element of the sex bike came from screens at each seat that played “bike smut”, a carefully curated collection of pornography that the creator felt was best suited for bike rides. Personally I think that might be a bit of a distraction on the road, but that’s just me.
Up next was a series of displays aimed at debunking common myths about sexuality and celebrating historically marginalized groups. I really loved this aspect of the museum, but as it was fairly text heavy it doesn’t make for the most interesting photographs. The most visually interesting aspect was a lot of Feminist art and protest posters collected from various Anti-Trump rallies these past two years or so. However you feel politically, there’s just something nice about people channeling creativity to do something they feel is important. In terms of the more textual displays, some really fascinating ones included a history of birth control and how it’s been marketed, a breakdown of non-heterosexual behavior in animals countering the dual myths that queerness is unnatural and/or serves no evolutionary purpose, and a breakdown of political sex scandals throughout history which was fascinating but also pretty depressing that people abusing power for sex is such a constant. Of the political sex scandals, the one that intrigued me the most was one from my own state, because it was a rare scandal where the politician was pretty much an innocent bystander. For all of my life, MA congressman, Barney Frank, has been out and proud, so I was too young to remember or know that the circumstances that led to him being outed were a total screwball comedy of errors. Frank hired a male sex worker named Steve Gobie, and the two became good friends after the tryst with Frank hiring Gobie as a personal aide and housekeeper and letting him stay in his house. Unbeknownst to poor Barney, despite the free housing and two new jobs Gobie still kept up the world’s oldest profession… out of his apartment! Barney’s landlord told him about the romps going on while he was out being a congressman, and he evicted Gobie. Being a good friend, Gobie then immediately started a bidding war between two local news affiliates for the rights to his story, thus publicly outing Barney as a gay man. I think it speaks to just how good a politician Frank is that he not only weathered the scandal, but continued to get re-elected for the next 20 years afterwards. I guess Vegas doesn’t have a monopoly on wild prostitution-related stories.
The next gallery was an odd little collection dedicated to sex in the third reich, with the star feature being an actual pair of Eva Braun’s panties. I was initially a little uncomfortable with this, since it seemed like it had the potential to sort of fetishize the Nazis, but upon reading the displays it was actually a really interesting look into how, while the Hitler and the Third Reich preached messages about “purity” both racial and otherwise, looking into the sex lives of top Nazi officials actually shows a deep well of hypocrisy, including but not limited to homosexual acts, extramarital affairs, affairs with Jewish men and women, and even in Hitler’s case, a bit of incest. The goal in highlighting all of this was to show that even in the extreme case of Nazi fascism, sexuality is not something that can be regulated (nor should it) because people are going to be people (especially when they have the advantage of being in power) no matter how violently and evil-ly you try to make them be otherwise.
The gallery was complimented by a series of prints of vintage German erotica, which were often very surreal, not particularly sexy, and yet surprisingly great pieces of art. Particularly with the one on the left, I have no idea what is going on there.
The next gallery added a little sci-fi weirdness focusing on the logistics and plausibility of having sex in space, even including actual NASA reports on the subject which were fascinating and sort of hilarious. I like that NASA had the foresight to know that people alone in a cramped spaceship that long are probably going to start fighting or boning sooner or later so they might as well have a few of their scientists figure out how to doe the latter in zero gravity and maybe that might prevent the former. It was all so calculated and scientific you almost forget how silly it is. In case you were in any danger of taking things far too seriously the displays were accompanied with explicit space themed pornography that I’m sure would have made Stanley Kubrick proud. In the interest of taste, I chose to leave that one to the imagination.
The second floor was more classical erotic art from all over the world. This was more to my tastes, because however graven the imagery the craftmanship was impeccable. There was a great variety of paintings and sculptures from every continent (except Antarctica, alas penguins haven’t figured out to make dirty pictures with flippers yet) some of which date back over two thousand years! It’s sort of beautiful knowing that all over the world all throughout time, people have been making and presumably giggling at naughty images. It’s a great unifier. Even Walt Disney has some pieces in the collection. It’s also very destigmatizing that in all of these different societies, you really see that there isn’t one “correct” way of sexual expression as just about anything and everything on display. For something so natural, there’s often so much shame and guilt around sex and if museums like this can help alleviate that even a little bit, I think they’re really valuable even if they do occasionally make you blush.
All that being said, some of the pieces were just objectively great works of art and some highlights for me included: a series of drawings by acclaimed Russian illustrator Feodor Stepanovich Rojankovsky who was known equally for his children’s books and his erotica which featured clean crisp lines and expressionist figures; a beautiful black marble sculpture; a truly ridiculous print from 1881 France of farm girls playing in a field with a dozen or so tiny penis-chickens; and some David Lynch-ian nudes by Abbot Meader.
The next gallery was really powerful but a bit of a bummer so I didn’t take any photos of it. It was all dedicated to sharing the stories of young men who had been sexually assaulted by school teachers, most of whom were female. Unfortunately these stories are frequently written off as lesser than other sexual assaults, or worse yet as jokes, despite happening shockingly frequently. I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve heard comedians all over the place use a premise similar to “it’s impossible for a woman to rape a man”, which is both not true and also quite hack. I think that unfortunately in a lot of the current discourse around sexual misconduct, a lot of times women assaulting men is brought up in a very anti-feminist manner when in actuality it should just be a flip side to the same problem and speak to the role of power dynamics in these sad stories. Women aren’t as often in power, so they don’t as frequently exploit their power which is why the issues are largely focused on violence against women as opposed to violence perpetrated by women, but any good feminist would agree that accepting women as truly equal means accepting that yes sometimes they are equally capable of doing terrible things. This point while valid is often unhelpful when issues are fundamentally about power dynamics that unfairly and disproportionately affect women, but that doesn’t mean that sexual assault isn’t something that can affect anybody and that any survivor regardless of gender deserves to be heard, validated, and supported if and when they should share their story. This was what the museum did showing photographs of the victims and the criminals and very dispassionately sharing the details of each case with the goal of taking these headlines out of the realms of gossip and ridicule and sharing the sad human story underneath all the sensationalism. I’ll be honest I teared up a little, because I personally have far too many friends and acquaintances both male and female who have experienced misconduct, harassment, and outright assault (I mean one would be too many, but sadly it’s not just one). It’s a big problem, and one as a comedian I am forced to grapple with a weird amount. In the comedy community, the idea of what can and cannot be joked about is often a tricky subject and rape has sort of become the most quintessential taboo topic. A lot of people say it just shouldn’t be joked about, while I would say most comics take the stance that any topic is okay as long as the joke is funny enough and has good intentions. That being said open mics, where I spend most of my time. are the amateur level and very few comics are good enough yet to pull off tricky jokes on difficult subject matters and most of the rape jokes I hear come across as just being for shock value which I do find unpleasant. My personal opinion is that when ever you even say a charged word like “rape" or a racial slur, you are going to automatically cause the audience to tense up because of their gut associations with the word so the joke must deal with that tension in some way by either being twice as smart or twice as funny because now you don’t just need to get a laugh but make people feel okay about the set up. For me, that’s often more work than its worth so I just avoid taboo topics unless I feel like I actually have something valuable to contribute on the subject, though I know some people think comedy should be explicitly about diving into tricky waters and I do think there’s some validity there even if I don’t totally agree that there’s any one role that all comedians should fill. All that being said, I think the best case to be made for no joke being off topics is that sometimes, nowadays more and more frequently, the person making the joke is a survivor of whatever horrible thing they’re bringing up, and I think that’s a beautiful and cathartic thing about comedy that people are able to take the worst things that ever happened to them and not only make it through it, but find humor in it. That aspect of seeing what people have overcome through comedy has easily been one of the most life-affirming parts of this trip so far.
On a much lighter note, the next gallery after that was possibly the wildest tonal whiplash yet as it was just a 360 degree movie theater room showing the very explicit evolution of video pornography through the ages. It was here that I found my own wall of prudishness, because while the history element was fascinating, I did just find it a bit uncomfortable casually watching porn with other museum patrons. No shame if that’s your thing, but I didn’t stick in that gallery too long.
On that historical note though, one of the coolest items in the collection to me was an original hand-written letter by the Marquis de Sade himself who while still a hotly debated literary figure cannot be denied his role in opening up literary potential for frank discussions of all manner of sexuality for better and for worse. I’ve never read anything by him, but I did think it was a neat historical document.
And lastly, of course, what museum could possibly be complete with out a giant sculpture of a rifle with testicles? Just classic art stuff.
After the museum I made my way to a really fun bar called Rebar for the night’s open mic. The cool thing about Rebar, is that besides being a great bar with a huge beer and cocktail selection, it is also a thrift and vintage store and all the decorations on the walls are for sale. I didn’t end up purchasing anything but this book, with one of the funniest juxtapositions of title and cover photo, certainly caught my eye.
Much like the venue, the open mic was also lively and excellent with over 30 comics coming out. A few even brought friends, so there was a great crowd and energy the whole night. The reason this mic in particular is such a big draw might have something to do with the fact that best set of the night can actually win a prize in the form of a $20 Rebar gift card which gives working on your material a little added incentive.
I think my favorite set of the night went to a guy named Tim Reall (not sure on spelling) who did a really funny extended story about a woman loudly complaining about getting the wrong order at Subway which led to him saying in exasperation “How do you get the wrong order at Subway?! They ask YOU to pick every ingredient”. He was just a great story teller, and did a very fun job of breaking down every detail that made the interaction so odd.
Lauren Rochelle - I’ve been doing this new thing where I just stand in my kitchen and slowly die
Oogo Ramos (i can’t have written his name correctly but that’s what I put in my phone notes) - I use my tattoos to show off my personality. I have no tattoos.
Matt Salt - People think twerking is a black thing, but they twerk at white strip clubs too. You just have to ask first and that’s WAY weirder
Garret Hall- When people ask me what my favorite donut is, I have to really pronounce the “D” in white powder.
Santoria Rush - Have you guys heard about tiny homes? Like people spending thousands of dollars to intentionally live in a tiny home. That’s some white nonsense.
Genevieve Elgrichi - I’ve been trying to use J date to meet a nice Jewish boy and half the time I’m just like god I hope this guy’s cock is half as Jewish as his name.
My own set must have gone well, because I won the first place gift card for the night which was incredibly validating. I feel like I’ve been getting stronger as a comic, but it’s nice to have some tangible reinforcement that the way I’m spending all my nights isn’t totally insane. It also made me glad I stayed until the end of the whole show, which I hadn’t planned on when I first saw the size of the list, but I accidentally got more drunk than I had intended because I got the first local beer that appealed to me, the Joseph James I’m Out Imperial Stout. It came in such a small can, i didn’t realize that it was over 9% abv. It was absolutely delicious, but dangerously potent so while I went on pretty early I ended up staying the whole night partially just to sober up for my ride home. But it was such a resoundingly fun night of comedy, I couldn’t be happier I stayed.
Favorite Random Sightings: “Elvis Slept Here” sign on a motel; John E. Carson’s; American Nightmare Tattoo (what a name to not instill confidence in the product); Artisans on Fire (likewise an insane name)
Regional Observations: Vegas has a restaurant called the Heart Attack Grill where anyone over 350 lbs can eat for free. That sentence says more about Vegas than most novels ever could
Albums Listened To: Skol by Oscar Peterson and Stephane Grappelli (jazz violin, also the only album today because I really didn’t do a ton of driving)
People’s Favorite Jokes: none today, but here’s one from the internet:
Harold and Al were on a small chartered airplane when the pilot suddenly had a heart attack.
"Don't Panic," cried Harold heroically. "I'll land this baby!"
Seizing the controls he headed for the runway at LaGuardia Airport, and began wrestling the diving plane to the ground. Just as the wheels touched the ground, Al screamed, "Red lights!! Right in front of you!"
Immediately Harold threw the engine in reverse and jammed on the breaks, bringing the plane to a violent stop just inches from the edge of the lights.
"Brother!" he puffed, wiping his brow. "That sure was a short runway!"
"Yeah," agreed Al, looking side to side, "but look how WIDE it is."
Song of the Day