I woke to a gentle but insistent rapping on my bedroom door, opening my eyes in time to see a slice of daylight frame Nic Farey's leering visage: "Coffee, tea ... or hair of the dog?"
This was my first full day in Las Vegas and I had a sneaking suspicion opening it with alcohol wouldn't be the wisest move. Best leave that to the second drink. Better still, leave both for a couple of hours and catch up on my sleep: three weeks and five cities into my TAFF trip, I was beginning to feel more than a little burned out even before Bobbie Farey and I decided to chat until six in the a.m.
I'd flown in from San Francisco the previous morning, the first eastward stage of my tour. As Nic drove me back to his and Bobbie's place in Cape Cod Drive, I mentioned the massive billboard advertising machine guns which had been the second thing I'd spotted after my arrival at McCarran International (the first, appropriately, was a row of Star Wars-themed one-armed bandits); he recalled a store in Edgewater, Maryland, which bore the simple banner Liquor Bait Ammo (I imagined a typical conversation: "Hey, Earl, wanna get drunk and shoot some fish?").
Cape Cod Drive is located in the Sunrise Manor neighbourhood of Clark County, on the eastern side of Las Vegas. Apparently, it's close to a geological fault line named for the nearby Frenchman Mountain, but – like my stay in California – this section of my journey would thankfully remain free of seismic shifts.
In more welcome proximity – just a couple of blocks away – was the Aces & Ales pub on South Nellis Boulevard, formerly part of a chain but bought out by partners Ryan Johnson and Keri Kelli earlier that year to become an oasis for fans of 'craft beers'. I'd barely dropped off my luggage before Nic was suggesting he and I go show the locals how pool should really be played, which immediately indicated he had no conception of just how inept I am at any game involving balls, sticks, racquets or, to be frank, scoring.
I was far more in my element downing a bottle of Rogue Hazelnut Brown (6.2%) and chatting with Lindsay, one of the two charming barstaff on duty. Before too long, I'd switched to the Lost Coast Brewery's 8-Ball Stout (6.3%), Nic was off demonstrating his skills with a cue and I was learning from Bobbie how she and Ann bonded over a lengthy chat one Novacon. I never knew: even now, my wife continues to surprise me. By the time Nic returned from his match, Bobbie was telling me about her ambitions to write a series of children's detective stories featuring 'The Cranberry Twins', I'd worked my way up to Arrogant Bastard (one of the pub's most popular brews and a hefty 7.1%) and it was time for the three of us to head into Glitter Central.
We landed in Hennessey's Tavern on the legendary Fremont Street, "home of the world's largest pint" (60oz, for anyone who's counting – and no, I didn't: food was the priority this time). Back outside, I was finally able to catch the massive lightshow playing on the canopy which stretches over Freemont: a deafening display dedicated that evening to Queen and opening with "We Will Rock You" (it certainly did). Aware that I'd accidentally left my walking stick behind in Toronto, Nic suggested I take the opportunity to visit a nearby souvenir store and pick up a replacement, which made perfect sense; no wonder Nic looked vaguely bemused when I exited instead with a Stetson, even if he conceded it did look pretty good on me.
I'd had the good fortune to arrive during a week-long tribute to Woodstock, so pretty soon the three of us were watching veteran Who tribute band The Wholigans blaze through their heroes' repertoire. Nic even got to chat with them afterwards, and was rewarded with a signed drum skin, which was swiftly given pride of place on the lounge wall soon as we got home. (Synchronicity: as I transcribed those particular audionotes, the documentary Listening To You was playing on cable, with footage from The Who's appearance at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival.)
When I finally re-emerged from my bedroom the following day, we'd already been joined by James Taylor, wife Teresa 'Tee' Cochran and Barbara Young, the first of which had volunteered to pilot Nic's van on its 25-minute journey over to Arnie and Joyce Katz's home on some Astronaut-Named Drive (hence this epicentre of Vegas fandom being known locally as 'the Launch Pad').
I felt highly honoured as Arnie led me into his lounge and introduced the many Vegrants who'd turned out to welcome me to Glitter City, among them John Wesley Hardin and teenage daughter Colette, his girlfriend Jacqueline 'Jacq' Monahan, Ron and Linda Bushyager, Bill and Roxanne 'Roc' Mills, Rick and Laurie King, Lori Forbes, Jolie LaChance, Ross Chamberlain, Bryan Follins and Derek Stazenski. At the evening's highpoint, there were nearly two dozen fans in attendance.
Joyce unveiled a smoky-flavoured dish involving sausage, beans and maple syrup (I really must ask her for the recipe), then the party split into two: some headed into Arnie's study for a chat and a smoke (he was being particularly vocal about various fans' "bleating" about the results of the fannish Hugos presented in Montreal), whilst Nic and Bobbie got together with Bill and Tee for a performance by the Vegrant Sympathy Orchestra. Meanwhile, the rest of us took it turns to contribute to the latest issue of Home Kookin' (undoubtedly available online at eFanzines.com).
It was around this time that I asked Colette if she'd ever seen The Rocky Horror Show, given she was wearing a t-shirt from a Chicago stage production; she hadn't, or its film incarnation, which led me to query why she was wearing the shirt.
However, this is not quite the same as John's tongue-in-cheek suggestion in Home Kookin' that I "demanded" his 14 year-old daughter remove said garment, although his accompanying claim that I later disappeared into a bedroom for a half-hour with his girlfriend is entirely true, if equally innocent. (TAFF is many things, but sex tourism isn't one of them, at least not on my watch.)
I was further honoured when Joyce divided up the cake she'd made to commemorate my visit and my own slice was placed upon a plate illustrated by Bill Rotsler (several of the others featured Biblical scenes; was there a Pontius Plate, I wondered). It's little wonder Joyce has a reputation as a great hostess, although I was told she'd made an especial effort for my visit, which was very touching.
Shortly before the party wound down around 3am, I asked Arnie if I'd made a better or worse impression than 1993 TAFF delegate Abi Frost, whose visit had become the stuff of legend. His reply was short and to the point: "Well, considering that 25% of Las Vegas fandom gafiated after meeting her, you couldn't have made a worse one." I laughed when he followed this with a suggestion I think about moving to Nevada, to be told: "But I said the same thing to Nic." Damn it, I'm doomed.
Sunday saw another the return of another TAFF-related tradition, this one individual to the Farey household: the TAFF Cookout. First held in 2002, when Tobes visited Nic and Bobbie in Maryland, the idea was dusted off for James Bacon two years later, although Nic had experimented on the latter occasion with fried turkey instead of chicken.
First to arrive were another James (Miller) and Kevin, two ex-workmates of Nic's whom I'd met briefly at Aces & Ales on Friday, both quickly recruited to help set up the oil cooker in his backyard (for the record, a four-pound chicken needs 20 minutes at 350°F). Soon after, the usual suspects began to drift in: James and Tee, Scott Anderson, John and Colette, Jacq, Lori, Derek, Jolie and Barbara, Arnie and Joyce had initially hoped to join us, but she was feeling rather drained by the previous evening's festivities.
Both conversation and beer flowed into the evening, with James and Tee the last guests to leave, although John and Jacq returned around 10:40pm, after dropping Colette off at home. A little later, I walked in on Bobbie and Jacq in Nic's office and asked if I was intruding; "It's okay," Bobbie reassured me. Not entirely convinced, I repeated the question, with the same answer. It was then I realized I'd reset my subtlety receptors way too high to cope with these particular ladies' politeness, made my excuses and exited.
The following lunchtime, Nic and I headed out to get a few supplies from a nearby shopping precinct (I noted the 'smokers only' parking zone in front of one retailer; it's swings and roundabouts for the nicotine-addicted), before heading over to the Boulder Strip to check out the Sam's Town Hotel & Gambling Hall. Its most famous attraction is "Mystic Falls", a glass-roofed atrium with its own rock waterfall, nightly laser displays and animatronic beavers (cheaper than a call girl, I guess). I considered it a suitable occasion for the two of us to go wild, so suggested I get in a round at Billy Joe's Bar (one of the site's many hostelries; there's also an 18-screen cineplex and 56-lane bowling alley), then lay down a bet. Nic didn't need his arm twisted for long, but I was slightly taken aback when the most exotic bottled beer on offer was Newcastle Brown Ale. As for the gambling, we each blew a dollar in one of the bandits; not exactly big time, but you can hardly go to Vegas and not indulge (in fact, there's probably a local ordnance against it).
There was a minor hiccough when I bought some beer for us all on the way back. The credit card I tried to use was perfectly valid (and I was carrying two back-ups, to cover all contingencies), but the terminal kept demanding my zip code (presumably as some form of marketing exercise) and the staff went rather blank when I tried to explain we don't have those in the UK (what, the entire planet isn't simply the USA writ large?). At least they accepted cash.
By the time we got back to home base, James and Tee were waiting with Bobbie, then the five of us walked round to Aces & Ales to celebrate James' birthday. John and Jacq were already there, digging into a pizza, so I ordered an Arrogant Bastard to accompany a 'patty melt' (which I believe – shock horror – was the only burger I bought during the entire trip). It later struck me this was the second fannish birthday party I'd attended in the past 10 days, the first being Andy Hooper's shindig in Seattle.
Back at the bar, I got another pint in for myself and Nic, then the pair of us sacrificed another dollar each at the bartop keno machine. We'd clearly become hopelessly addicted, so I perused a leaflet entitled When the Fun Stops, a guide to diagnosing whether you have a gambling problem (intriguingly, virtually all the warning signs also worked if you substituted "producing fanzines" for "gambling"; if only Martin Tudor and I had read a copy before we launched Critical Wave).
Nic had confessed to me on the Friday he'd told the staff there that not only I was a journalist, but I would be writing about my visit when I got back to the UK (I was producing an occasional real ale column for the Sunday Mercury at that time, so at least I was able to keep his promise and anoint Aces & Ales as my spiritual 'local').
This might explain in part the warmth of the hospitality I received from Lindsay, though I suspect she's a naturally friendly girl; I got a "safe trip back my way" hug when I mentioned my next stop was Chicago (she originally hails from Michigan).
The evening progressed well, even after Nic and I bewildered all within earshot by singing "My Old Man's a Dustman" to the theme from Match of the Day (I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue should try that one). Chas 'n' Dave, the next (de)generation.
I managed to squeeze in nearly six hours' sleep before Nic provided my wake-up call at 8am on Tuesday, and this time I was happy to take up his offer of coffee.
Around 90 minutes later, we were heading down the Strip so that he could point out a few more landmarks before my hop to O'Hare, among them the Luxor and its Egyptian frontage, the Eiffel Tower replica built into Paris Las Vegas, the spectacular fountains outside the Bellagio and one of Glitter City's two Statues of Liberty, outside the New York – New York (the same one, in fact, which was accidentally used by the US Postal Service for a stamp design in April 2011).
As we neared McCarran, I realised just how busy the airport was: two aircraft came into land in just the few moments Nic paused his van at traffic lights on the approach road. We'd made good time, fortunately; I finally got through security at 11:45am, with the on-schedule Flight 986 due to start boarding at noon. I headed for the escalator (attractively decorated with foot-long silver models of various 'planes), and couldn't fail to notice the massive sign which sends weary travellers upon their way: What happens in Vegas Stays Here.
Now that wouldn't be any fun for a TAFF report, would it?
As I look back now to my time in Nevada and the people I met there, I'm reminded of a line in the movie Casino when an ageing mobster recalls his ex-wife: "She knew how to take care of people, and that's what Vegas is all about."
Couldn't agree more.