KNOWING WHAT THINGS ARE WORTH IN LAS VEGAS
Ben Kaplan goes to Vegas with his dad, rents a convertible Lamborghini, and discovers what it means to be alive and well in the city of lights.
If you’re going to take a shvitz with someone — I mean Hall of Fame sauna choices — you might choose Leonard Cohen, Christopher Plummer, or Mordecai Richler. Or my dad. Naked on a towel, it’s best to sit beside someone wise, egoless, and worth listening to. In a sauna, there’s no escape from conversation, and when that little room gets hot and the conversation goes deep, my dad, like any hero, gets philosophical. At 70, he’s been up and down and back up again, but he remains handsome, collected, and funny, not to mention a never-ending font of professorial wisdom. (It helps that he’s a professor, as well as a shrink.) Sometimes, when I’m running around chasing the chaos of raising a three- and a six-year-old, I play my dad’s voice in my head, and the world makes a little more sense again.
But he lives in Maryland and I live in Toronto. I have about as much opportunity to take a shvitz with him as I do with Christopher Plummer, which is why I look forward to our annual father-son vacations.
It’s been a thing, these last six or eight years, taking trips with my dad on his birthday. He makes it seem like the trips are for him, but I can’t understand my life sometimes — marriage, fatherhood, death and disease — and the trips have become my lifeblood. Last year, our trip was cancelled when my sister-in-law got sick. This year I need it, to breathe some air not contaminated by grief. We’ve been all over the continent, to the Bahamas, Jamaica, Atlantic City. But we keep coming back to Las Vegas — a desert amusement park that’s as sauna-like as you can get without taking your clothes off — for the weather and the rush. It’s a place that works for us. It’s where we go when we want to hide.
Turns out my dad is also a good guy to have by your side in Vegas. He has no agenda, no dietary restrictions; he goes with the flow and is good about picking up the cab fare between hotels when his back starts to hurt and he can no longer walk.
I learn from my father — last trip, at the buffet at the Venetian, he had a last round of Peking duck for dessert and hit at 16 playing blackjack when the dealer was showing a queen. He’s always telling strangers he’s proud of me.
The first thing we do in Vegas is get something to eat. STK, in the Cosmopolitan Hotel, is more nightclub than restaurant. It’s not a strip club, though they seem to pay such establishments an upscale homage: the music is loud, the lights are low, and a sweet perfume scent hangs in the air. We’re at a table the size of a matchbook in the underarm of the bar, and my father says he can’t hear. He doesn’t look comfortable — bigger than his chair, he looks like Papa Bear in Baby Bear’s Bed.
The problem is I’m exhausted, and STK feels intense. Everyone in the restaurant looks like Young Thug or Selena Gomez. I used to see myself as Steph Curry; when did I become Ray Romano? At 43, I groan when I take a seat and exhale loudly after a sip of coffee. At our tiny STK table, I can see my dad’s lips move but have no clue what he’s saying. When a waitress rushes past us, ignoring my whimper (“martini?”), I feel a million years old, ready to watch Sportscenter, order a room-service burger and call it a night. How can my father feel?
My dad speaks to someone calmly, which is strange because the house music is so loud, but then this happens: we’re escorted up a flight of stairs to an elevated black leather booth where we proceed to do Vegas the right way, with lobster tail, martinis, and an off-menu rib cap. The man has acclimated himself to the bacchanalia, and I keep my arm around him for most of our meal. I don’t even remember first putting it there; I just know I don’t move it after I do. Then, after I go to bed, Lester Kaplan, bespectacled and wearing clothes my mom packed for him, wins two grand playing craps.
This year, I plan the trip in meticulous detail. Before leaving, my dad and I get haircuts; we get matching brown leather Nike Cortez shoes, and my mom slips my dad a surprise $300. The planning sessions, which start in November, escalate in intensity and excitement until we’re literally Facetiming our suitcases the night before, sharing what we plan to bring.
But when we arrive, I give my wife, Julie, my dad’s cellphone number and keep my phone turned off in a drawer in our room at the Aria Hotel
With my dad around, I can rest. As we walk from delight to delight in hotels the size of shopping malls, my dad says, “UFB,” which means, of course, “unfucking believable.” And Las Vegas, after all this time, still is: the Sports Book at Caesar’s Palace; roasted merino lamb at Sage; Rich Little, Canadian veteran of the Dean Martin roasts, at the Tropicana Hotel. These things, enjoyed best with my father and a glass of anything, really are UFB.
My mom was going to surprise my dad with a ride to the airport in a Maserati, but I told her that was a waste of money. Who wants to sit in the backseat of a sports car? Besides, I have something better in mind when we’re there. It’s Day Two of the trip and I’m driving a yellow Lamborghini Huracán with the roof off behind my father, who’s in a red Ferrari 458 Spider, giving me the thumb’s up sign through his convertible as we sit in traffic on the Strip.
We rented the cars from Exotic Driving Experiences and are supposed to be driving around Lake Mead in southeastern Nevada, but there was a mix-up and we no longer have time — we can’t miss a meal — so instead we take a lap around Las Vegas Boulevard, our scalps sizzling in the sun. It wasn’t always like this. Six months ago, my dad hurt his back and couldn’t walk. The pinkie finger on my right hand is crooked from punching the wall. Sometimes life is hard, but not today. Neil Diamond
comes on my radio, my dad can’t figure out how to turn off his blinker, and I’m radiating like the sun.
I keep thinking that in 15 years, my boy Matthew, named after my dad’s dad, will be 18 and my dad will be 85. If my kid wants to spend time with me, I’ll have lived a successful life. Sitting here in traffic, idling my Lamborghini, trying not to make eye contact with the homeless guy yelling at me, I can imagine Matthew in a green Alfa Romeo behind me, me behind my father — three generations — and I can imagine Matthew laughing at me when my windshield wipers won’t turn off. To feel loved. Supported. Growing up, I took that for granted. Even when he’s gone, I tell him, it will be like he’s still here because I can feel him in my bones. 8.
The rest of our weekend is spent on large meals, March Madness, and dressing up for everything. Friends from Los Angeles pride themselves on dressing like schlubs in Vegas, and it’s true that you can play craps and eat steak in Crocs here without anyone batting an eye. But I like acting the part — Frank Sinatra, The Killers, Swingers, the mob. At the Dorsey martini bar at the Wynne Hotel, I don’t want to dress like I’m picking up my daughter from daycare.
Saturday night, my dad’s 70th birthday, I’m wearing a skintight checkerboard suit in tones of canary and aqua at Caesar’s Palace and singing along at the Rod Stewart show. I buy us a couple of Heinekens (with dad’s cash, but still) and we stand for much more of the show than you might expect. The audience around us is entirely women, and throughout the concert my dad, flexing his charm, makes them all laugh. Life is good.
We end the night at the Montecristo Cigar Bar talking bullshit with the manager as he brings out a bottle of Balvenie and dad has a Padron Damaso cigar even with his asthma. When I first mentioned the idea of this trip to my father, he booked his ticket, and when Julie calls to wish him a happy birthday, he tells her that I said I wish she were here (which is true). Sometimes a bar, as a man well knows, can be like a sauna — a place to seek out life’s meaning — and, waving our cigars and sipping our Scotch, I ask my dad what’s the best way to be a husband, raise a family, be a father, be a man. He says the trick to life is enjoying the moment. Everyone’s going to die, but are you alive, right now, while you’re here? Be appreciative, manage expectations, he says, and speak clearly when it’s time to raise your voice. I’ve learned from my father, in Las Vegas and also at home, being a man means maximizing and creating opportunities, without screaming, for our wives, for our children, for our people, for ourselves. I take another totally unnecessary, totally delicious sip of my drink and listen.
My dad and I like to go to Las Vegas. And this trip, well, maybe he knew that I needed it bad. On the day we were leaving, the morning after celebrating his birthday at STK, my father split his winnings with me. 9.
7. Except for the stares of walpkeionpgleby, driving a Ferrari in traffic is the same as adrpirviiunsg. 8. He loves thtaot tsetlolry butteliliknegep him: I’m still here. 9t.heonbeesotf trips of my life. o6n.e Boefn tihse cheapest people I’ve ever met.