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Wednesday, Apr 09, 2014 - Canvassed | Art & culture

I was invited to preview Harrah's SoCal resort's $160 million makeover and will probably not be invited again

A tale of near-death, bloody steaks and unprecedented opulence

By Ryan Bradford


We were somewhere between the Downtown San Diego and Escondido when the drugs began to take hold.

A few weeks prior, my editor had forwarded an invite from Harrah’s Resort Southern California casino (Harrah's SoCal, for short) to attend the media preview of their $160 million renovation. The email listed their new offerings with easy-to-read bullet points that might have well been real bullets shot into the part of my brain that controls excitement:  

  • Brand new 403-room hotel tower  ("you’ll be the first to stay there!") 
  • SoCal’s only swim-up bar
  • Participate in a mixology class with throwback cocktails at Spiked, the brand new ultra lounge
  • (Ultra lounge?)
  • Unwind at the property’s award-winning spa
  • Lazy river 

But then I got sick. I want to think the excitement I felt surrounding the media preview was the reason, as if all my energy was rerouted from my immune system to fuel those sugar-high-like vibrations of anticipation. By the day that my wife Jessica and I were scheduled to leave for Harrah's, I was gray with illness and shivering from body aches.

"We don't have to go," Jessica said, although it was more or less a charade of sympathy—this excursion had become as much hers as mine. 

We had one bottle of DayQuil, one box of NyQuil capsules, zinc lozenges, ibuprofen, Emergen-C drink powder, a bottle of Sambucol to strengthen immunity and a box of cough drops. We were 30 minutes away from Harrah's when I felt the drugs produce a euphoric clarity that I hadn't felt in days. I remember thinking something like, "maybe you should drive," but Jessica had fallen asleep in the passenger seat. My wheels whump-whumped over the divots in the road. I straightened out and slowed to five below the speed limit. I was just sick enough to be totally confident.

***

A Jumbotron-sized screen loomed over Harrah's reception desk, playing videos of tight, tanned bodies playing in water and filling themselves with booze. The flesh and spiky-haired images stood in sharp contrast to the population walking/rolling/shuffling around us through the lobby. I've always been fascinated by the concentration of life-support technology on any casino floor, and a quick tour through any casino's slot machines is a crash course on what's keeping people alive these days: breathing tubes, heart monitors, motorized scooters. In comparison, the beautiful people on the giant screen seem deceiving. Insidious, even. Or perhaps the sickness was resurfacing and those hyper-analytical thoughts just needed to be numbed from my personal pharmacy. 

"Just checking in," I said. "Last name's Bradford." 

The front-desk lady plugged us in. "We've got you in a suite in the new tower," she said. "$100 food credit and $150 spa credit have been added to your room." Oh and here are your crowns and scepters, my lieges. She went on to tell us about the automatic lights in the rooms, and how they're all motion-activated, and I nodded like I was an expert at motion-sensor lights.

"One more thing," she said and slid an envelope with my name hand-written on it across the desk. It was the welcome packet from J Public Relations—the firm that organized the media preview. It included a personal itinerary and a paragraph encouraging us to use social media as much as possible during our stay, tagging each tweet, 'gram or update with the hashtag #SeeItUpClose.

It is my belief that that all social media campaigns are made with the best intentions, no matter how futile they are. The successful campaigns are the ones that produce a capital-E Event, a phenomenon where disparate users can feel part of a community through the shared enjoyment of something, or produce a want in the users who aren't experiencing it. So, while a $160-million renovation is impressive on paper, it doesn't have the same communal appeal or possess the spectacle of say, a fucking tornado full of sharks. 

However, if you are going to launch a prestigious social-media campaign, you definitely want me on your team. 

In hindsight, with a hashtag that was begging to be attached to a dickpic, I consider my tweets were pretty well-behaved. 

So you're welcome, Harrah's. 

***

Panorama of the sweet, sweet suite

The new elevators that took—nay, ascended—us to our room were so fast and silent I was dizzy when I stepped off. 

We had room 15051, a palindrome, and surely a number that probably holds divine meaning to theology students. It was by far the best hotel room I've ever stayed in: two bathrooms, a living room, a master bedroom, two TVs that could be watched at the same time at the right angle; a Jacuzzi tub that overlooked the lazy river and a balcony that connected the living room and bedroom. Frosted doorways, modernist/industrial adornments and a jungle teal-and-brown color scheme gave the room a "Gentle Future" aesthetic—a term I coined with no qualified experience in interior design. Automatic lights greeted us upon arrival. 

Overloaded with the sudden opulence of our condition, Jessica and I ran out to the balcony to look upon minions, 15 stories below. We hadn't even made it to the ledge before the door behind us slammed shut with the force of a guillotine. Locked. 

We hadn't even been in our room for more than three minutes and we were already locked out on the balcony. I wondered if this was a rare occurrence or if the truly rich aren't so easily distracted by the spectacle of being, like, really high up that they forget to check if their doors lock. 

Luckily, we caught the attention of Karen Billing from Carmel Valley News, who was staying in the suite adjacent from ours. Good thing, too: the ledges that connect the rooms are wide and enticing enough that I contemplated crossing it for help.

The cleaning crew let us back in. I swiped my phone and saw an email from Jillian, one of the JPR representatives, asking if I'd checked in OK. All I could think of was an image of my body falling down 15 stories in an attempt to regain access to our room and what kind of mess it would make upon impact. Then I imagined the crime-scene photographer uploading the image to Instagram and tagging it #SeeItUpClose.

***

The balcony fiasco (and a weak-ass margarita from 'ritas, the questionably shortened name of the casino's Mexican restaurant) left me drained. I took a nap but slept unsoundly, and my dreams were feverish with my illness' vengeful vigor. I woke up to find Jessica gone. Taking advantage of our $150 spa credit. 

According to the itinerary, I was late for the media dinner at Fiore, which, as I'd been told beforehand, was not available to any +1s. The thought of mingling with other media types by myself with a head cold and stomach full of 'ritas filled me with anxiety, but I dressed anyway, hoping that maybe I could walk it off. I roamed the casino floor, lost $10 instantly, and was about to head back up to the room when I got a foreboding text from Allie, another JPR rep:  

Hi Ryan, we have a place set for you at the Fiore dinner. Will you be joining us? I just spoke with your wife and she said you were on the casino floor.

What excuse could I make? She knew where I was. Paranoia won out. Fear and loathing, I'm telling you. 

I slid into the restaurant and found a seat next to Karen, the woman responsible for saving our lives during the balcony fiasco, so pretty much my best friend now. We ate bloody steaks and macaroni and cheese. The wait staff was quick to refill the wine. I seemed to be the only person drinking it. The conversation somehow landed on Mayan ruins and sacrificial lakes of Mexico, an appropriate topic given the red lake left from my delicious meal. Everyone used their phones to take pictures of every course, because journalism. 

After dinner, I met Allie, Jillian and Heidi, the JPR representatives who were overseeing the event, and who had been omnipresent up until then. All three possessed the attractiveness and subtle aggression that makes for good public-relations experts, qualities that can simultaneously disarm and control a population. We shook hands and, despite the pleasantries, I could tell they were annoyed with me. Certainly, my weird tweets and showing up an hour late to a fancy dinner had not endeared me to them. 

They took us to Harrah's new bar Spiked, where we drank free-ass craft cocktails—an idea that seemed novel considering that most booze you buy in casinos comes in 3-foot bongs or football-shaped vessels. The regular price (commoner price, I thought) for these drinks seemed to average about $10. I think I got a drink called the Old Timey, because it was fun to say, and I'm pretty sure it was quite good.

Somehow we ended up at the Beatles vs. Rolling Stones tribute concert, but left during the middle because I had suddenly become enthralled with using the Jacuzzi tub in our room. Jessica ordered room service while I sat in the scalding, bubbling water, looking down upon the empty tubes flowing in the lazy river. I remember telling her that she should come into the bathroom to watch me bathe while she ate, which might be the weirdest and creepiest request I've ever made.

***

I felt terrific the next morning. The sickness: gone. I jumped out of bed and strutted my way to the scheduled brunch, a lavish buffet complete with ice sculptures. Everyone was nursing some degree of a hangover and we ate in relative silence. Jessica and I sat next to JPR Allie, who seemed to be trying her best to be cordial, despite the good chance that I'd been crossed off their future invite list. For the sake of conversation, she asked Jessica where she worked and Jessica responded "Planned Parenthood," which is basically a kryptonite topic for anyone trying to maintain the superficial pleasantness of a situation. Allie excused herself from our table and never returned. 

It was time to check out. It was difficult to think about the life I was about to return to, and I quietly mourned into the 4-foot-long decorative log pillow. 

But my quixotic journey of luxury would be unfulfilled without a dip in the lazy river. We got in the elevator and Jessica leaned over and kissed me, despite our normal abhorrence of PDAs. I don't know what had come over us. Perhaps it was the frenzied emotions that come with fast living and big spending. Perhaps we were still drunk on Old Timeys. We kissed like people who had won a free steak, like people who had conquered a balcony. We kissed like a couple that had figured out motion-sensor lights. We kissed like gross married people. And when the elevator—that silent fucking elevator—opened, JPR Jillian was standing there and totally saw us making out.  

We did one lap in the river and got bored. What had once held such exotic appeal now felt bland and passé. On the way home, we listened to The Rolling Stones and heard "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction." It seemed appropriate.


Write to ryanb@sdcitybeat.com or follow him on Twitter at @theryanbradford

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