If the Boy in the Plastic Bubble owned a bar, it might well be the Budweiser Racing Track Bar & Grill at McCarran International Airport. The bar crowd is forever on display here, imbibing behind large windows wide open to McCarran’s quick-paced pedestrian traffic.
The bar, which I fondly refer to as the Bud Bubble, is a great rest stop for those who have just landed or are ready to leave Vegas behind. It is the only bar at McCarran (and, likely, at any airport in the country) that serves alcohol 24/7. Well, not quite 24/7. From Wednesdays at midnight through 6 a.m. Thursdays, the bar is closed for its weekly scrubbing. But at any other time, you will find all variety of travelers—often bleary-eyed and awaiting departure or giddy with anticipation if they have just hit Vegas—in lively conversation within.
Who are these people? Most of them represent millions of passengers who fly in and out of McCarran International each year. About 4.3 million people flew in or out of ever-expanding McCarran in August, a six-percent increase from August 2006, and the airport is equipped to handle more than 53 million passengers annually. Most of these people are from elsewhere, everywhere, and have little in common except that they are scrutinized, processed and scooted through a facility that has become one of the top five airports in the nation. As such, most visitors to Vegas experience the monument that is McCarran before they ever marvel at the replica Eiffel Tower at Paris Las Vegas, the Bellagio water show or St. Mark’s Square at the Venetian. In many ways, McCarran is our Ellis Island.
And quite a few of those travelers take refuge in the Bud Bubble, plopping into a barstool that stands just one position away from the very end of the bar, near the cocktail waitress station. It is Stool No. 8. For more than a month, at various times, I talked to travelers seeking rest or asylum on No. 8. I usually set up on one side or the other—Stool No. 7 or No. 9—and simply waited out my prey. I waited an hour, usually. Sometimes I spoke with multiple subjects. Many times, like the night a quite-thirsty woman had to be led away in a wheelchair, I was shut out.
My partner in this project, on nearly every visit, was bartender Luana Brown. She keeps the bar bubbling with nonstop commentary.
“I have ‘information’ stamped on my forehead,” says Lu, who can usually be counted on to know where to find the nearest pay phones, gift shops and shuttle lines, and even the weather patterns, right down to the humidity percentage. Lu’s something of a throwback bartender, not above cornball comments like, “You like my cookin’?” as she shoots Diet Coke into a tub of Bacardi and ice. “I’ll cook for ya!” We learn she’s ambidextrous, too, which is why she so nimbly fires the guns with both hands. “Dad’s a lefty and Mom’s a righty,” she says, both guns firing. When a buck slips through her fingers into the sink it’s, “Operator error!” When a 32-ounce mug fails to contain all 32 ounces of Bud Lite and spills into an unoccupied Stool No. 8, it’s, “You really can’t find good help these days!”
“The usual?” she asks.
Yep, the usual. Diet Coke, over.
And at No. 8, we wait.
Bartender Luana Brown offers service with a smile.
Barstool Chronicle No. 1, in which an Australian gentleman gathers his bearings, and composure, as he awaits a cross-country flight
“I’m an ex-crocodile wrestler,” says the guy with the Paul Hogan accent sitting next to me, who is trying to impress ... well, me, I guess, and Lu. She just shakes her head and laughs. “Oh, really?” she says, eager to hear more. “Yeah!” the Aussie blusters. “I used to skin ’em to make handbags!”
Sure ya did, mate!
This is a late-night visit, and the faux croc hunter, the eminent Andrew Baker, is fueled up and cleared for takeoff. He’s about 90 minutes from a red-eye to Atlantic City to do business with a golf course back there. He runs a company that provides business plans for golf courses so they can run more efficiently and environmentally responsibly—so the courses can go green, as it were. He’s originally from Brisbane, Australia, and these days splits time between Vegas and Dana Point, California, spending three or four days in each spot before jetting off.
Andrew estimates he takes 120 flights per year, one-way. He also visits his two adult children and new granddaughter in Brisbane, making that grueling 14-hour flight every six months. His oldest daughter, Zoe, is 21. Amani is 16. I take note of that name: “That’s a male name, too,” I say. “There’s a guy who plays for the New York Giants, a receiver, named Amani Toomer.”
“Amani Toomer? For real? No! That sounds like a fake name, like Lacy Underalls,’’ Andrew says, expecting me to return the line of barcrap he started with the crocodile-hunting claim. We laugh, and I notice how loud we suddenly seem. The Bubble has emptied out. Andrew is unwinding, settling into No. 8. I ask how old he is, and tell him he looks young to be a granddad.
“I’m 45,” he says. “I got divorced this year after 18 years. I miss the girls. It’s been a pretty tough day today, actually ...” He stops, and as he sips his drink his eyes well up. They aren’t crocodile tears.
Barstool Chronicle No. 2, in which lovebirds share a poignant, final cocktail before flying their separate ways
Jerry Hughes and Anne Marie Richardson are on one of their weekend getaways to Vegas. But when they leave for home, they don’t leave together. He’s a Chicagoan, and she lives in San Diego. No funny stuff, no Same Time Next Year extramarital romance happening with these two. They meet up to eight times a year, usually in Vegas. But a few months ago they met in New York. They’ll take a cruise now and then, too.
“The first thing you should have in your article is that we used to come in here because you could smoke in here,” says Jerry, who owns a concrete business. “But you can’t smoke in here anymore. It’s ridiculous.”
The couple play the slots and keno and bet the horses. Over the years they’ve stayed at Caesars Palace, Harrah’s, Paris, Bally’s, “wherever we can get a couple of nights on our club cards,” Annie says. On this trip they cashed their points in on a pair of tickets to see Celine Dion at the Colosseum at Caesars. “I liked it, but I wouldn’t recommend it for 200 bucks,” Jerry says. Zumanity, they liked. And The Producers.
“But you know who’s good is the Tommy Thompson Project at Gordon Biersch,” Annie says. “We used to see them at Bally’s when they played there.”
Barstool Chronicle No. 3, in which Brian C. savors a final martini, or two, before facing fitness and 50
He wants to be known only as Brian C. He’s an attorney from Orlando who is taking in his fourth martini of the day.
“I love martinis,” he says.
Too much, probably. Brian is five weeks from his 50th birthday and is looking to shed some of his 250 pounds. He’s 6-foot-1 and carries himself well (at least, he’s not tumbling off No. 8), but is putting on weight unlike at any other time in his life. “I’ve actually lost 14 pounds, to get down to 250, and I’m jump-starting an exercise program. I came to Las Vegas on a health kick, I guess you could say.”
It is 11:30 p.m. and Brian is catching a break before he boards a commuter flight to St. George, Utah, where he is going to spend one week at Red Mountain Spa Resort. “It’s an excellent program,” he says. “Pilates, hiking, strength conditioning. I got a good Internet deal, but the whole thing is still costing me $4,000-$5,000.”
Brian says he makes it to Vegas up to four times a year. He likes O, and says that he’s going to treat himself to a stay at Wynn Las Vegas when he turns 50.
“But I want to be in shape. I’m not coming out here if I’m unhealthy,” he says. “At 50, you don’t lose it like you used to, trust me.” Then he swigs the last of what is, by his count, his fifth martini. “This is it. My last martini in a while.” With that, he’s off to wellness.
Barstool Chronicle No. 4, in which a Chevy pitchman turns the conversation to the beautiful Malibu, which reminds him of home
From the other end of the bar someone yells, “My old lady is still pissed that I wouldn’t take her to Lisbon!” It’s the type of beery non sequitur you often catch at the Bud Bubble. The guy on No. 8 on this Thursday morning, Chevy dealer John Cantwell of Portland, Oregon, laughs.
Then, with little prompting, he starts talking about Chevys. Specifically, the new Chevy Malibu, which, to hear him tell it, will set the automotive industry on its ear.
“It will compete with the Camry, Accord and Ultima,” he says. “It’s exactly what the market needs. I come from YuppieLand, which is Subaru Central, but the Malibu is going to appeal to a lot of those people.”
“You’ll have to do something to beat Camry and Accord,” I say. “I know Consumer Reports loves those cars. I have friends who own Camrys, and they say it takes 100,000 miles just to break them in.”
Sufficiently goaded, John rotates his body to face me. “Let me tell you something about the Camry and Accord,” he says. “The dealers who sell those cars really sell maintenance. When you buy a Honda, they introduce you to the maintenance manager. They make sure you are going to take care of that car, and that’s a big reason they have such good maintenance records.”
John is in town for a convention of Chevy dealers and is about to head back home. He didn’t do much sightseeing in Vegas, but he did stay at the Wynn and made it to Bellagio for the water show. “I’m not a good Vegas customer. I didn’t gamble. I didn’t go to any strip clubs. I went home and watched highlights on ESPN.”
Before he leaves, I have one more question: What do you drive, John?
“I drive a Silverado,” he says. “E-mail me and I can get you into one, no problem.”
Barstool Chronicle No. 5, in which a male nurse from Florida self-medicates while preparing for the wedding of a friend
Vernon Henderson is a well-built 37-year-old guy who seems like he might be a recently retired athlete, maybe an ex-NFL player or even a track-and-field star.
In fact, Vernon is a male nurse who lives in Naples, Florida. He’s spent a total of 35 minutes, so far, in Vegas. All at the Bud Bubble, on No. 8. He’s waiting for his wife, a schoolteacher who had to take a later flight.
“We’re in town for a friend’s wedding, at the Venetian, and I’m in the wedding,” Vernon says as he sips a 20-ounce brew. “It’s an expensive assignment.” The trip is a rarity for Vernon, who has never spent as much as a weekend away from his two kids; the oldest is 7.
“We’re here, and we aren’t sure what to do with ourselves,” he says, laughing.
Not knowing the exact layout of Las Vegas, Vernon is staying at Loews Lake Las Vegas, about 20 miles from the Venetian. “I thought it was closer than that,” he says. “But it’s a great deal, and from what I understand, it takes about 20 minutes, at least, to get anywhere on the Strip. I’m not worried about it.”
“You can’t walk across the Venetian in 20 minutes,” I say, reassuring Vernon.
He has studied Vegas just prior to his visit and is stunned by how fast the city has grown. “It seems a little ... stimulating, is the word. It grows so much faster than Naples. Where I’m from, just to put a sign up is a battle with City Hall.”
Vernon earned a degree in exercise physiology from Youngstown State in Ohio and avidly follows fitness sports. By chance, he’s in town for the Mr. Olympia competition at the Orleans.
We watch as a few muscular men, and a couple of women, strut past the Bud Bubble. Most are in shiny sweat suits and are slightly bronzed for competition.
“Doesn’t look like any are stopping in for a beer,” I say.
“That’s what makes them who they are,” he says with a laugh. “Me, I just love the sport.” He smiles and sips his beer.
Barstool Chronicle No. 6, in which the Deane of Connecticut liquor sales winds down after a wholesale experience
Peter Deane is having a Bud, in the Bud Bubble, and that is only appropriate. He’s a beer distributor from Madison, Connecticut, who deals in Anheuser-Busch products. Peter has been in town for two days, attending the National Beer Wholesalers Association Convention at the Las Vegas Convention Center. The group meets twice a year to discuss issues important to the industry. At the moment, the concern is keeping the industry’s multitiered system of regulation—which gives control of alcohol sales to each individual state—intact. “We don’t want any laws that would hinder our right to do business,” Peter says as he flips open a scarred cell phone. “One thing we don’t want is more taxes. Our big fear is Hillary Clinton’s health-care plan. Somebody has to pay for it.”
“That would be liquor distributors?” I ask.
“It would be tobacco first, then us,” Peter says. “We’re the easy targets.”
He’s about to leave when he takes a quick call on the beaten phone. He ends the call and says, “I’ve gotta get my kids something. I forgot to do that.” I mention that there are plenty of gift shops nearby for just such an emergency.
“I’ll pick up a UNLV T-shirt or something,” he says. Then he notices, somehow, a new Idaho commemorative quarter sitting next to my Diet Coke. “What is that?” he asks. I slide it over and say, “A memento of our friendship.” He laughs and walks off in search of that T-shirt.
Barstool Chronicle No. 7, in which a young woman maps out her weekend as the bar buzzards hover
She’s probably no older than 25, blond and pretty, wearing a tight red top and denim shorts. She’s sitting alone, sort of, except for the two guys at her left on Stools No. 7 and No. 6. So I slip onto the unoccupied No. 9.
She’s going to be a challenge, this one, because of her aforementioned qualities. The two guys next to her have a several-minute head start on me and are offering her shots of Jagermeister, apparently celebrating the occasion that it is Friday morning.
“I have a friend who told me that Texas A&M is the worst school ever!” says the guy at her left, who sports a moustache and slickly groomed hair. He’s full of beer and bluster and wearing a shirt trumpeting the band Me First and the Gimme Gimmes.
“I went to school in California,” the drone continues. “Cal Poly-Pomona. But that ain’t Cal Poly-SLO. That’s in San Luis. There are a lotta schools in California. Stanford, that’s a school for rich white kids.”
I finally wedge my way in by asking, “So, you wanna be in a magazine article?”
The guy on No. 7 defers. “Let the man have his chance!”
Thank you, kind sir.
Wendy Solopek, today’s inhabitant of Stool No. 8, sets down her bright red Cape Cod—which nearly matches her top—and asks, “Magazine article?” I push my card to her and say, “My only hope is you’re here on a bachelorette party. I haven’t interviewed a bachelorette yet.”
Wendy is skeptical. As proof of my motives, I recall some of my favorite Stool 8 occupants—Aussie Andrew and Brian C., the would-be fitness buff—before she finally relents.
“I’m here for a bachelorette party ...”
“Yes!” I shout, and the guys on No. 6 and No. 7 high-five. Wendy is from Austin and is a student at Texas State University (which the guy at No. 6 earlier mistook for Texas A&M, evidently) in San Marcos. She’s working on her master’s degree in physical therapy. Wendy just turned 26 and is waiting for a call from her friend Monica, who has been her best friend since they were sixth-graders.
I ask what the plan is for the weekend.
“It’s sort of disorganized,” Wendy says. “We’re going to some stripper class.”
“Stripper 101?” I ask.
“That’s it! I’m not too excited about it, but that’s what she wanted to do ...”
“The dinner show at the Rio.”
“Tony ’n’ Tina’s Wedding?”
“That’s the one!”
“We’re dong a spa day.”
“Where are you staying?”
“The place with the fake skies and the gondoliers.”
“Right! We’ll play some blackjack and roulette. I’ve got $300 to lose.”
“What if you win $300? Do you have a top-end limit?”
Wendy laughs and says, “I hadn’t thought of that, no.” Then her phone buzzes and “Monica” appears on the tiny screen. “I have to go. Wish me luck!”
We all say it, almost in unison, as she bolts from No. 8: “Good luck, Wendy.”
John Katsilometes is the Weekly’s writer at large.