Thursday, March 22, 2007

At times like this, pretend you're in a movie (and be thankful for generics)

I'm just back from doing the Bike Friday Arizona Desert Camp (click link to read the full montymedia).

The last evening was an interesting exercise in the danger of elevating your expectations.

It had been a long, hot week of riding and spirited carousing with 60 customers. A great time, really. On the last evening I postponed dinner to put together and show the group footage of the week as a swansong, as well as sit through the nth screening of my movie Route 66 By Bicycle, where n is a large number. By 9pm I was ravenous. Three of us nite owls - including a NYer of course - convened with great expectations of a relatively extravagant, sit down dinner in the relatively sumptuous (relative to Appleby's) restaurant next door. A chance to decompress and pat ourselves on the back for a time well had.

The restaurant next door decided to close early due to short staffing. But no matter - the hotel shuttle would take us to a local steak house. 'I don't feel like a steak house,' said Steve, the NYer. What about Denny's next door? 'I'm not eating in @#$% Denny's either!' said Leon, from South Africa.

Where else is there to eat, in the outskirts of Tucson airport?

How about the Casino? Although I don't gamble, my memories of casinos in Las Vegas and even civil service central, Canberra, Australia, are of a fairly cushy place, with lighting and amenities just right to keep you there as long as possible. They generally have pretty nice restaurants.

The hotel staff reception desk concurred, only we later found that neither of them had ever been to the local casino. The shuttle driver again asked if we wanted to go to Denny's or the steak house. No, we wanted something better tonight, we said.

He drove us there. He was from Kenya. He and Leon struck up a conversation about Africa. Their home ground. The outskirts of Tucson are full of long, dark stretches of empty land, dotted with lonely prefabricated structures gridded by roads roaring with ten tonne trucks. We sped a long way into the night. The neon lit, airport-hangar like structure of the Desert Diamond Casino loomed. 'Call me when you're ready and I'll pick you up,' said our driver.

On stepping inside we knew we'd come to the wrong place. This was not the kind of swank casino in any shape or form that any of us had been hallucinating about. This was a large shed, jammed with machines, grim faced people, guards, thick cigarette smoke ... and over there ... a sandwich bar. The only 'restaurant'. The air rang with the gay yet strangely melancholy burble of the slot machines. The scent of addiction was thicker than the smoke. We asked a few people if there was another restaurant. They said no, looking as dejected as we did. There was another whole wing to this structure that we explored, but all tunnels led back to that same sandwich bar.

We didn't even get as far the sandwich bar. 'I'm getting out of here,' said Leon.

'Hey I saw a place called El Mesquite' on the way here,' said Steve, one ear plastered to his cellphone in an attempt to monitor his flight back to his wintry home. He was clearly hallucinating about Mesquite style cuisine as dished up on the Upper East Side.

We started walking into the night. And walking. There was no sidewalk, just a narrow shoulder separating us from the oncoming traffic. I wish I'd turned my reversible traffic cone bag inside out, and worn it across my chest. I wish I'd brought my blinky light. Why the hell do we forget these things when we need them, and carry them around forever when we don't? At one point Leon had to leap into a ditch as an SUV swerved into the shoulder, almost knocking me into the concrete embankment. He said all this reminded him of Africa, so he was probably having the better time of us three.

'Errrrrm, I thought it was closer,' said Steve, still plastered to his cellphone and dangerously invisible to traffic in his black wool Hugo Boss lounge jacket.

'This is not New York!' said Leon, flashing teeth that reminded me of one of those large cats on Animal Safari.

We stumbled along the highway to El Mesquite. It resembled a single level public shower block with archways, loud Mexican music blasting from the portals. A kind of 'club'. Nearby was a sandwich board pointing to a hot dog stand. Steve went to check it out. There was darkness all around except for this little run-down oasis.

'We're not going in there,' said Leon.

Around this time I remembered someone once telling me, 'if you're ever somewhere you don't want to be, just pretend you're in a movie.' (Thank you Gabriel for that one). All of a sudden the movie looked vaguely interesting. Maybe something out of 'Leaving Las Vegas'.

We called the shuttle operator. He would not be able to pick us up for half an hour. And only from the Casino. We trudged back the way we came. It was 10pm. Leon had to get up at 4am.

We braced ourselves, and headed for the sandwich bar. Steve asked for a chicken burger. The cooks ignored Leon and I, while loudly stating that they were 'outta here at 10pm', and started cleaning the grill. It would be twenty minutes before we could get anything, they said, as they had to clean the grill. In the cabinet was a fairly reasonable fruit salad and cottage cheese which I claimed. Leon pulled a chicken salad from the fridge. He looked like he was about to hit someone with a crowbar and I looked around at the black flak-jacketed guards who were bigger than any of us - well, they had bigger stomachs.

We sat outside the front doors, eating our plastic box dinners on a wire seat, with a woman smoking opposite, and the roar of traffic and air conditioning ducts near by.

Our shuttle driver appeared sooner than we expected.

'When you said Casino, I was worried,' he said. 'I've never taken anyone from the hotel there, especially not to eat,' he said. 'I am so sorry.'

We finished our dinners back at the hotel, in the same area I'd done my presentation a few hours earlier.

There are a couple of lessons to be learned here.

Had we gone out there expecting little more than a granola bar, we would have considered this an interesting
adventure. The gap between expectation and reality - is the gap where people get pissed off. Close the gap - just pretend you're in a movie, and life can look pretty interesting even when pretty tragic.

And another thing we agreed - Denny's was made for people exactly in our predicament. Hungry, tired, late. Yet we snubbed it. This is one time I feel we should have been thankful for its banal presence. For the first time I got a vague inkling about why generics, shopping malls and places like Denny's and McDonalds will forever dot the landscape. Someone was waiting for us there, in Denny's getting paid to save us from something far worse - The Desert Diamond Casino.

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