Friday, August 08, 2014

Fear & Laughing in Las Vegas

Manuel Ramos

The International Latino Book Awards were announced in Las Vegas, NV, on June 28. At first glance the choice of Sin City for a literary event seems, uh, awkward?  But the ILBA folks piggy-backed their awards night onto the American Library Association’s annual conference so maybe it made sense. Imagine, thousands of book people gathered in the neon desert to celebrate the great institution of book-lending, not to mention the other great institutions found in Vegas like slot machines, strip shows, gaudy excess, and covered walkways between massive casinos so no one ever has to breathe natural air or bask in natural light.

Late on a Thursday night and with some trepidation, Flo and I flew to the land of blast-furnace heat. We carried the hope that because my novel, Desperado, was a finalist in the Mystery category we might bring back a trophy (actually a plaque.)

Typical Las Vegas Hotel
The event itself could have been an episode in The Twilight Zone. First, it took place in a town that has immense references, without irony, to ancient Egypt, New York City, Paris, and Venice waterways. But we were at the Clark County Library, miles from Paris or Egypt and the ALA conference, which was going gangbusters over at the Vegas Convention Center. (The ALA had hundreds of vendors, panels, demonstrations, free food and booze. Several of the ILBA writers prowled the ILBA booth during the day to sign books and talk to our readers, of which a few actually showed up.)

I’m sure there were “unattached” spectators in the audience, but easily ninety percent were relatives, friends, or business associates of the nominated writers.

One of the first things we were told was that all the authors should use the “honorific title of AWA” after our names.  I’ll quote from the event publicity:  “You have earned the title by being a Finalist in the Int’l Latino Book Awards. Since many people do not yet know what AWA stands for it is a great conversation starter – and will lead you to talk about your Award Winning Book and about the awards in general.  Here’s how it would look:  José Avalos, AWA.” It may be just me, but I don’t anticipate that idea catching on.  We’ll see. 

The night’s festivities started with a “pinning” -- each of the nominees was called up on the stage to receive an Award Winning Author (AWA) pin.  The line snaked off the stage and into the audience as we dutifully thrust out our chests so we could get pinned (does this mean I am now going steady with the ILBA?)  Then we hung around the stage for a group photo.  Several such photos were taken but I don’t appear in any of them.  There was no coordination, no group photo leader. I ended up at the back of the crowd and being that I am of typical Chicano height (5’7” or less), as far as I know there is no photographic evidence that I received my pin and spent several minutes on the library’s stage with the other nominees.

The categories were then called and the winners in each category were given thirty seconds to thank anyone and everyone. Not too many writers kept to the thirty second limit. Mystery was the second to last category and with more than 80 categories total I had no illusions about the event ending early for me. What struck me was that it appeared some of the writers knew they had won beforehand. Some of the missing winners, the “celebrity” types, had even prepared videos that expressed their gratitude. Obviously those winners had been contacted before the event. I thought this was a good idea to guarantee a respectable number of winners at the event. But since I had not been told that I should definitely be at the event, I quickly lost any anticipation of winning.

La Bloga friend and fellow Denver writer Mario Acevedo and his writing partner, Richard Kilborn, were finalists in the Best Novel – Adventure or Drama – English category for their book Good Money Gone.  The experience was brand new for Richard – this was his first foray into literature and he was genuinely pumped about the nomination. Mario’s been around the block a few times so he was a little more low-key, but when it was announced that their book had won the category, he was as jubilant as Richard. It was a good night for them. Tim Hernandez, also a friend of La Bloga, walked away with a first place in the Historical Fiction category for his acclaimed novel, Mañana Means Heaven. I was especially pleased to see that Rudolfo Anaya, my friend and writing role model, won the Romance category with his Old Man’s Love Story, a book I reviewed here on La Bloga.

Finally, it was time for the Mystery category. My hands were sweaty. I tapped my foot. I told myself I did not win, that in the big scheme of things it did not mean all that much, and yet I bent forward to hear the name.

The presenter announced the winner in the Best Novel -- Fantasy/Sci-Fi category, the crowd applauded, and then the host started to close out the evening. I groaned, a few others murmured something about mystery, and the announcer caught himself.  He hastily went back to his notes and found and then named the winner in the Mystery category.

Alas, first place for Desperado was not meant to be. The novel received an honorable mention, which means that it made it to the finalist stage but no brass ring (actually, a plaque.) I got a paper certificate acknowledging the mention, which is now stashed away with other honorable mentions (for King of the Chicanos, back in 2011.)  The first place winner was a writer with whom I am not familiar, which says more about me than her (Blanca Irene Arbeláez – the word “Colombia” appears after her name in the official list of winners – “USA & México” appear after my name. I think that means I’m a Chicano writer.) My friend Linda Rodriguez was awarded second place. I thought Linda would win this category and I would have bet on her if there had been a betting line on the awards at any of the casinos. Didn’t see anything like that and so I didn’t lose twenty bucks.

There’s a bit of a quandary, for me, when it comes to literary awards. I like winning awards, who doesn’t, eh?  But then I have to rationalize when I don’t win. After all, I consider myself a pretty damn good writer, so what’s up with an honorable mention instead of first place? But if I deserve the awards I do win, then do I also deserve not to win those I don't? At those times I have to remind myself of another piece of lite literary wisdom:  If you believe the good reviews then you also have to believe the bad reviews.

The evening ended on a high note. Richard Kilborn had arranged for a limo to pick up himself and his family after the event, and Flo and I were invited to cruise the Strip, along with Mario and Marina Tristan from Arte Público Press. And with nothing more than sliding across the leather seats of the stretch, we morphed from writer geeks to gangstas, from nerdy pencil pushers living our fantasies on the computer screen to flashy high rollers taking in all that debauched Las Vegas had to offer.

Well, not really. We headed for a liquor store, of course, where we sweltered in the Vegas summer night’s heat in the mall parking lot while Richard gathered assorted beverages and snacks.  While we waited, the driver, Walter, had to turn off the limo because it had overheated, so we had no air conditioning and no drinks. The AC wouldn’t work although Walter assured us that the problem was temporary. He also acknowledged that the limo was a mess with dirty glasses, half-used booze bottles, and assorted detritus.  He had been called for the job at the last minute, after he had already done a couple of shifts.  He admitted he was “a little tired” and hadn’t had time to clean the transportation.

Flash forward to the next day when Flo and I are on the way to the airport. Our cab driver is a woman straight out of a Damon Runyon story – full of character, street wisdom and kitschy humor.  She regales us with stories about limo accidents, “a slew of them in Vegas, don’t you know?” The problem, she tells us, is that cabbies are limited to twelve hour shifts, by law, but limo drivers don’t have such limits, so “they push it, every night. They’re dangerous.”  She tells us about limo drivers who go for 24 and 36 hours before they take a break. Flo and I look at each other and think of Walter.

Back to Saturday night. Walter stuck his head in one of the back doors, and in the ghostly light of the parking lot he reminded me of Barnabas Collins from the original Dark Shadows.  He proceeded to tell us that he was sorry but he had to let the limo sit for a while so it could cool off.  Sure, whatever. He opened the doors as wide as they would go. The steamy Vegas night air swirled in and the interior temperature went up. We waited, sweated, and told ourselves that no one forced us to live the glam life of the writer.

Eventually, we cruised the midnight traffic of Las Vegas, which meant we didn’t go anywhere for a long time. Walter stayed awake and did a bang-up job. We spent some time in Richard’s suite at the MGM Grand, where he generously shared food from room service as he told us about life in Panama; we even walked with the Vegas herd as it moved, en masse, from one casino to another.

Pedestrian Bridge Not At Midnight
As we made our way over the pedestrian bridge that connects the MGM with New York-New York, I thought of the Vegas contradictions represented on that bridge. The dressed-up couples celebrating their youth with old and ancient traditions like inebriation and raunchy jokes; the beggars, addicts, and drunks, sleeping or passed out or weaving, the crowd and life not waiting for any of them; pimps and hustlers pimping and hustling the marks; groups of young women in stilettos, barely-there skirts and extreme make-up plotting their next moves in the long-odds game they played with thinly-veiled desperation; losers, crying as they stared from the bridge at the gridlocked cars below; red-eyed parents with sleeping and bawling kids, finally wondering if a Vegas vacation was really the right choice for Junior’s birthday party; a mother in a miniskirt laughing with her teenaged daughter, also in a miniskirt, who carried an inflatable sex doll apparently won at one of the games of chance; and an aging, out-of-place writer, honorable mention in hand, coming home a winner.


Richard Kilborn and Gerry "D" from PBC Panama

For a dose of reality after that strange trip above, check out this interview of ILBA winner Richard Kilborn recently broadcast on PBC Panama. Richard’s interview is at the 81-100 marks. Here's the link. 



Anonymous said...

Minus disheartening slot-losses, you captured Vegas. You're good when you go this style.
And AWA is actually spelled a-g-u-a, the invisible liquid that provides no sustenance, just some fluids to keep us going. I know; I received one in 2013, but I won't use it. I have to say, "honorable mention." Feels more honest.
RudyG, a sort of AWA

Manuel Ramos said...

Thanks. Hard to believe but I did not lose a cent to gambling this last trip to LV. But then I also did not do Bourbon Street the last time I was in New Orleans. Son los años.

Mario Acevedo said...

Yes, that limo ride was God's metaphor for the writer's life. AWA! AWA!