Taxi Tales: Las Vegas

Taxi Tales: Las Vegas

Las Vegas holds a special place in my heart, somewhere between skipping a beat and bleeding out. Vegas is the girl who hid in the back of the class unnoticed in high school; running into her at Costco years later, you see pock marks under scoops of sparkling makeup, framed by  clanging bangles and cotton-candy hair to distract from the girl she once was. Forever the tease, Vegas promises your nervous caress (of a rabbit’s foot) will bring a big score. She pretends the marquees and bright lights will make you forget that real people call her “Home.”


My relationship with Las Vegas began when my late husband and I attended a time-share presentation for a trip to Mexico. After three tries to cash in the cruise that was always “full,” they offered us a free trip to Vegas instead.

“Las Vegas???!!! Why would we want to go to Las Vegas?” Jack asked. I nodded in agreement. No. Interest. Whatsoever. A minute later: “But we’ll probably never go otherwise . . .” he said, hand on bearded chin.

I nodded in agreement.

And so after that intro-dabble into Texas Hold’Em in Nevada, we began a life-changing endgame to “see the world by poker room.” We became serious students of the game and  played in L.A., Barcelona, Connecticut, Slovenia, Oklahoma, Prague…

A few short months before my husband died, he wanted to take one final trip. I suggested San Francisco, once his favorite city EVER, Paris, New York… But no. Vegas.

Years later, I met my now domestic partner in Sin City. I was attending a “WPT Boot Camp” with Mike Sexton and Vince Van Patton. Bob flew in to meet me for the first time. We’d begun emailing through and then moved on to talking nightly on the phone. Our weekend whirl led to dinner at Vic and Anthony’s Steakhouse followed by O at the Bellagio, ice cream, breakfast, magic.

No getting away from Las Vegas now. I head there at least once a year, usually twice, to play in various poker series. I have my favorite casinos, favorite pools, favorite hotels, favorite cheap tournaments, favorite restaurants. My poker coach lives there. Friends have moved there. Whenever my plane lands, and I see the Strip’s iconic skyline in the distance, my blood pulses as if ionized, like a neon sign.

One thing: unlike most travel destinations, I never rent a car in Vegas. Taxis, Ubers, Lyfts are plentiful and cheap. I always enjoy when they ask if I’m meeting my husband or if my game is Bingo or slots. When I say “poker,” almost without fail drivers seem surprised, having prided themselves on their accuracy at reading their customers. One driver said to me, “Seriously? You are the last person I would ever imagine at a poker table.” This is what I long to hear. I count on disarming others in the game by them not knowing what to make of me.

Over the years, I’ve learned about the other Las Vegas—the one behind the bangles and glitter, flowing dollars, and hoards hoping to “get lucky”– from taxi drivers. Like hair dressers and bored waiters, they love to tell their stories and listen to yours.


Probably in his late 40s, Luis was a large and jovial man with dense black hair swept over his forehead.  He talked about being raised with five sisters and one brother, the proverbial “Catholic Family,” although he corrected me with “Hispanic” when I said “Latino.”

Growing up with female-sibling overload gave him an almost intuitive understanding of women that astounded me, except for one point: he kept insisting women were smarter than men; I kept insisting we were just wired differently.

Luis shared home-life anecdotes and insights into traveling with a family of stragglers and the value of his wife’s way of thinking. His voice rose in his throat full-bodied whenever he mentioned her—a peacock spreading bold feathers, proud. He believed in her. He believed in his life with her. Her sense of humor. The way she tilted her head before asking a question as simple as, “Which drawer did you put the bottle opener in?”

I was awed by his kindness and generous spirit and how much he appreciated and admired the women in his life. He was self-confident enough that their strength in no way threatened his own. He was candid the way people can be when they’ve been well-loved.


He and his wife had followed his parents and siblings to Orlando from Brazil. Superhero-handsome, intelligent, and in his late 20s, Marco was still in graduate studies, but his wife was a working criminal analyst, who moved between local police and intelligence agencies, well-respected and in demand for her skills.

They had moved to Vegas to follow her career, but they weren’t happy. They found the city beyond the Strip ugly and depressing. The homelessness and poverty reminded him of San Paolo and Rio de Janeiro without the beauty. And he missed his family in Orlando. Those still in Brazil.

Marco had worried overall about Trump and his authoritarianism, but also felt the same thing with Bolsonaro, still in power, and worried about the state of the world. His wife believed that Trump fit several criminal profiles in addition to being a dictatorial threat with his cult-like followers.

They felt stuck. In, but out. Financially comfortable, the promise of a successful future—for both of them—looming. But happiness. No. Not here.


Can someone reek of Bible Seminary like fresh Ivory soap? Thin, pale, well-scrubbed, with a softly twanging voice, Jared had too-short of hair, oddly coifed.

Turned out Jared did, in fact, start out in College Bible study with friends in Tennessee, but then he read several novels and books of poetry, which led to even more, that took him “beyond” what he’d been taught.

I kept thinking of how my late husband, the college poetry professor, would warn his discontented, but wealthy, housewife students to “Turn back” unless they were ready to change their lives: “Poetry is a dangerous elixir once decanted.” More than one of his students ended up divorced, in graduate school, sequestered in a mansion, writing poetry.

Jared laughed at how he was now in “Sin City” and reading James Baldwin. If you’d told him this three years ago, he’d never have believed you. Told him that I was a big fan of the “Prodigal Son” method to finding faith by exploring the universe inside, that the best path to true spirituality is self-discovery. Let’s face it. Self-knowledge is a deeply humbling thing. We both admired how the Amish turned their young people loose into the world to see if the Amish lifestyle was what they truly wanted.

We then talked about Hesse and Steppenwolf and Siddhartha, and before we said goodbye, he decided to order them both on Amazon that very afternoon to read after Baldwin.


We started out talking about weather as soon as I answered that I lived in Alaska.

“Oh, yes,” he said. “I know that latitude. I lived nearby, in Russia. Not too close… St. Petersburg. Tiny little snowflakes that packed hard into snow like boulders. The wind went right to the bone…”

“To the bone” was always one of my favorite phrases. We would enjoy this ride.

Cuban and full of machismo, Hector expressed himself in masterful English. He’d lived in the U.S. for maybe 20 years, brought over by relatives who hated Castro and the entire revolution.

Decidedly anti-Socialist, he could sense my liberalism and took it on himself to school me as thoroughly as he could in 20 minutes.

“Do you know where Socialism started?”

I shrugged. Had my ideas, but much more interested in where he took us, both in the cab and in the conversation.

“France. And the American Transcendalists took it up as their own. The Utopians.”

Aaah—a well-read man.

He bragged about the “immigrant spirit” and how Trump was wrong about that. “Immigrants are zealots—almost fanatically patriotic. If we stayed a country of first-year immigrants, we’d have the hardest working, most patriotic citizenship in the world.”

“Did you see Hamilton?” he asked, seemingly free-floating, but not.

I nodded.

“He was outside the box. Hamilton could see objectively what a new country needed. The American forefathers—what collective brainpower!”

There–right there–that zealous pride, that immigrant adoption / adaptation of superior patriotism.

Then Hector told me about the failures of South America, of Cuban health care (“Don’t believe for one minute that it’s better than here.”), of American capitalism going back to Teddy Roosevelt and the creation of the National Park system (“It was an enticement for Americans and foreigners to travel and spend money across the U.S. It spends fuel, fills hotels, connects states, sets up dynamic exchange.”)

“Don’t believe anything you hear. Venezuela… such a mess.” I asked about the country’s political corruption. “Well, sure… but Venezuela… its socialism led to the collapse. What a mess.

I asked about American socialist programs like highways, education, fire departments. He insisted we have none. Our “socialist” programs invest our taxes, he said, to pay for services, that then pay the government back in other ways, even directly in many places.

I actually don’t know the market investments of government well enough to agree or disagree. My contrary nature wanted to argue, but Hector had me charmed with his immigrant enthusiasm.


Born in Romania, Marcellus was a large man who barely fit into his car. Gentle-toned and kind, he talked about his wife and two children and living in the south of Spain before settling in Vegas, and how now they felt inundated by the frenetic pace and tourist greed of the town. Ironically, he did like the money, but felt they’d lose their hearts if they stayed much longer.

He and his family were in preparation to move to Utah, as they had many, many friends there, and, as Mormons, longed for deeper community and peace. He put himself in my place and chuckled over the thought of a Romanian Mormon. He’d make a good writer, I thought, anticipating the questions and amusements of his audience.

Marcellus, like Luis, spoke with reverence about his wife, who he felt managed to stay grounded no matter where she was or who she was with.

We spoke about the beauty of Alaska, of Utah, of the world, and about his fears over Trump’s attacks on preserved lands. He hoped the new administration would overturn Trump’s many executive orders favoring corporations over nature. He worried that reversing Trump’s damage might get lost in a sweep of reforms. He loved Utah, its ruggedness, its soulfulness. He imagined setting up a charitable agency with his friends, his wife, something reflecting a love of God’s landscape.

In each of these trips, I was almost sorry to arrive at my destinations, as getting to know these previous strangers felt like the true purpose, the real journey. As I left each of them I felt oddly blessed and happy to have come to these intersections of life experience, brief as they were.

I’m not usually a “travel journal” kind of person, but so much happened in a very short space that I wanted to capture and share. Even places we’ve been many times can become fertile ground for learning how to become a better human.


Hector, the Cuban-turned-patriotic-American-Capitalist, maybe said it best, turning to me as we paused at a red light, “Do you know what’s the best thing about America?”

I got out of his way, nodding, so he could answer himself.

He pointed to me and then to himself. “We can agree or disagree and have real conversations outside of the State. Us. You and me. Isn’t that great?”


Yes. That’s exactly the best thing about America.

Of Cattle Crossings, Barbed Wire, and Cuddle Corners

Of Cattle Crossings, Barbed Wire, and Cuddle Corners

An excerpt from a memoir on grief, addiction, and love 


I really was a devoted wife. I was called that in a proclamation about my husband’s life from the City of University Heights, Ohio. I still am, in the biblical sense. My relationship with Lee was as hot as a splash of grease, hotter than that pepper sprout down in Jackson that the late Mr. Cash sang of, and lasted a long time on simmer, through years of secret trysts, until we felt comfortable to break the news to people that yes, we were in love, and yes, by God, despite the 27-year age difference and our on-again-off-again love affair of 20-years, that we were to be married in 2017. 

People hated me for my past with him, and many loved me for making him happy. Ying and yang, yippity-yap, that’s the way the cookie crumbled. You can’t please everyone. Nor did we try. I sold all of my belongings in Columbus, Ohio, scooped up my cat, and Lee brought me out to the dusty desert – a prickly place of heat and adobe houses, menacing critters that shoot out blood and vinegar to predators, mountain lions, rattlesnakes, and bugling elk.

We got married in a hotel suite in Las Vegas by an off-duty Elvis impersonator (it was 100 bucks extra to have him dress up, but he still couldn’t hide the hair or years of training his voice by singing “Love me Tender.”) My family clapped, and our friends let out whoops of glee, and we danced to Bruno Mars songs and popped a bottle of Dom.

Our marriage was the stuff of contentment, giddiness, and a partnering of kindred souls: when Lee sneezed, I sneezed. When I bent over to tie my shoe during our daily walks, Lee looked over at me as he looped his shoelaces. We agreed on which movies to like and dislike as we watched from our “cuddle corner,” a term used by Furniture Row to market our gigantic sectional couch to loving couples.

Our differences? He snored peacefully; little gulps of air escaped his mouth like a guppy popping out bubbles. I paced the floors at all hours, looked out the windows for elk and wildlife, and once asked him how he slept at night. 

Close your eyes,” he said. 

“He unapologetically smoked his Marlboro Reds and told the truth with a swipe of a pen…”

That was the Lee K. Abbott, author, master of the short story, and beloved professor and head of the creative writing program at The Ohio State University, which we knew and loved. His nickname growing up was “Kit,” short for his middle name, “Kittredge,” since he was named after his father (his brother still calls him that). He would admit that he never read To Kill a Mockingbird, although he threatened students not to plagiarize by saying in his syllabus that he had read everything. He unapologetically smoked his Marlboro Reds and told the truth with a swipe of a pen whether it be a “nope, nope, nope” on a poorly-executed plot or a paragraph full of praise with the same forethought and twist of phrases that he used in his stories.

Things were simple yet, in the core, oh so twisted and kinked and deeply rooted to long-gone memories and emotions and a sense of place. When we shopped for home decorations in New Mexico, we agreed we were not the flowery type; instead, we were made of barbed wire, cattle crossings and electric fences.

Lee died of acute myeloid leukemia on April 29, 2019. The long and short of it: he had shrunken to a waif, his body positioned like a question mark, slumped over and no longer able to take the pain of a blood-pressure cuff. The disease took him five months after diagnosis.

The disease still has me by its bony, speckled hands. My own disease, that of addiction, tried to take me down when grief knocked me for a loop.

I returned to our house in Las Cruces, New Mexico, broken and bewildered. I began chain smoking and talking to the bird feathers that floated before me in the air, some landing on me after churning in slow circles. 

The multiple pillows on our bed became Lee. I rubbed his back in dreams and even in a haze when I awoke and realized it wasn’t him. Almost each morning for a few months, I woke up unaware of where I was, thinking I was at my parents’ house in Ohio, in their master bedroom since the layout is the same. This made no sense. None of it did.  

I was an emboldened caregiver, strong and mighty with the feeling that I would keep him alive. And then I was downing a gallon of Tito’s vodka every other day, with alcoholism hot on my heels. Lee and I had afternoon cocktails every day at three. I broke this cycle and kept a glass beside my bed in case I woke up in the middle of the night, and I definitely had it for the morning when the shakes set in. 

I forgot the basics that make us healthy citizens of the world: I threw out food instead of eating (oh, baby food was my go-to for vitamins); I didn’t brush my teeth (I now need expensive dental work); I didn’t update my prescription glasses; I thought my seizures due to drinking or stopping drinking for a bit were just the norm, and who cared what happened because of them? I bathed (a couple times a week, if that) in a partially-filled tub because I didn’t feel like standing up.  

The stuff of life gets thrown into your face in the form of, well, forms. Paperwork and bills and settling the estate while your brain is floating somewhere in Mars is not the stuff that sissies can handle. My attorney told me that many people, trapped in grief, give up and leave things unsettled.


“…there are shooting stars in your head and arrows in your back when you can’t remember a password…”

“I wanted to be a widow out of the limelight…”

Grief makes you a grey, big-eyed alien when the mind goes in a million different directions – there are shooting stars in your head and arrows in your back when you can’t remember a password or even think of getting out of your pajamas to go to the bank. There are trillions of what-ifs, and why didn’t we do such-and-such, and how did I let him die? I didn’t – I fought like Shirley McClain did for her daughter in Terms of Endearment, blasting down hospital corridors demanding attention be paid to my husband.        

He thought (and I thought) he could keep getting blood transfusions to stay alive. We thought it could be like filling up a car with a tank of gas, with a complete system overhaul once in a while. He would’ve been a vampire coming in for blood, honk, honk! Is a bay open? Time to fill ‘er up. 

When someone is dying there is the initial fight and many words. I won’t leave you, he told me. 

And then as the body is ravaged, the mind gives up and gives in to fate, the person recoils a bit like a sick animal – their way of preparing you to be ripped apart from them forever. 

I knew we had little time together since he was 71, but this diagnosis gave too short of a window. Our laughter together, our synchronicities, him taking care of me, me cooking for him, our trips, our beautiful house, our everything.    

These were a few of his final moments: Lee cupped my face; I asked him if he was ready to die; he said yes. My brain zapped and jumped, yet I had to stay calm so he would tell me the truth. 

“I will call hospice, okay?”  

He muttered a yes and kept his small, bruised hand on my face and said he loved me. 

In his final hours, there was one more smoke for Lee. He sat up with a start in bed, took a drag off an imaginary one made of the glowing red oxygen monitor on his index finger. He dragged in slowly and blew out the fake smoke and fell back to sleep. 

One more time he told me he loved me. His mouth was dry, and I sponged his lips, his tongue. 

In the end, he died 24 hours after entering hospice. 

Lee was all about brevity, and while I can blabber on about the cookie, being me, crumbling almost to my own death, I will tell you instead that I sought help. This was only after people began to notice that I traveled with my gallon of vodka, turned quick to yell and throw things and repeat the words: You try this. TRY IT. See how you do. 

My family intervened in a loving way. Others dropped me – again, you can’t please everyone, and if they didn’t stay for my ending, it’s still their loss. I wanted to be a widow out of the limelight that Lee (although he didn’t know it) was in. I told people to leave me alone and deleted their phone numbers, all part and parcel of this newly-named cancel culture. It’s easy! Just hit “Block” on Facebook! But first, send them a drunken message of how you won’t be messed with anymore. That’ll show ‘em. 

I can tell you that drinking does not numb the pain and you wake up one day free of grief – drinking prolongs it. You will still feel all the things. You will realize that your little missives of hate shot to the world reflect more on your emotional instability.  I am in the stage now of understanding the roots of my love for Lee, roots that reach deep into my soul and poke out each day when I turn into our cul-de-sac, thinking of how he told me to recognize our road by looking for the flagpole and the 25 mph signs.   


 I am still in southern New Mexico, near Spaceport that has promised to shoot rockets to outer space from the desert. Actually, this is Mars. Unencumbered. Untouched. Lost. Left alone for lovers to travel through time and forget the world.

Out here the severe rains, known as “monsoon season,” pound down the landscape into rock / sand formations that could be on another planet. The rains twist and curve the landscape into arroyos to handle the water. When the rains come, cars, trucks, heavy street signs, and even people, float away. 

It’s a land of contradictions – friendly folks and jagged edges, sand that hits your face like shards of glass when the wind decides to spit at you. 

I’m here in some ways to stay close to Lee, to feel his love and fulfill my own passion for the southwest. This is where the world stops, where junked cars and Texaco signs dot the landscape. It’s here that I found my forever love, losing it soon thereafter, and where I will remain.