JONI TAKANIKOS, Nov. 16, 2012
Some friends of mine, a wonderful couple, who moved to the island a couple of years ago, asked me to a small dinner party some months ago. My friend’s parents were coming to visit, and her father is a retired English professor. She thought he might enjoy meeting a local poet so I was honored to attend.
Of course both of her parents turned out to be charming, as she is herself, and very interesting. Her mother is a cartoonist, but that might have to wait for another entry.
Early on in the course of the evening, her father inquired as to where I was from. That has always been a rather loaded question for me. I was born in Las Vegas, Nevada and for most of my 20s and 30s I was highly reluctant to mention my origins. As I became older, I realized that even though being born in Las Vegas invokes some interesting assumptions, it is the landscape and background that shaped me. Although I am always quick to point out that I spent large portions of my childhood in Santa Barbara, Calif. and the White Mountains of Arizona.
But now I proudly admit that Vegas was the main character that influenced my early years. Of course, the desert landscape has a beauty like no other. I still miss the springtime rains in the desert, with the accompanying lightning storms that I watched sail over the backdrop of mountains, feeding the dry ground. In the days that followed, I’d see an eruption of purple, red and gold wildflowers rise up from the dry ground.
And then there was the crazy light show of the early Vegas strip and its elegant and sumptuous casinos, with the serious gaming tables nestled below crystal chandeliers. In those days, the slot machines were on the borders and in the alcoves. Now most casinos seem to have fields of these “one armed bandits,” as they were once referred to, although these days they are only electronic, so there is no exercise involved. Even before I was of age, my father would let me pull the handle down, and we would watch to see if we had all cherries, or some other fruit, lined up for a jackpot. These instances occurred while we were snaking our way through the casino, on our way to a dinner show to see the stars of the day, Johnny Carson, Sonny and Cher, Shirley MacLaine and many others.
When I was 14, I went to see Elvis Presley at the beginning of his comeback. I stood in a packed line, rather bored, having been roped into seeing the show with my older sister and her husband. We ended up sitting at a table that had been added, due to the overflow crowd, right next to the stage. Two women, who were schoolteachers from the Midwest, sat with us. They had come specifically to see Elvis and they were very excited. I really did not understand the draw. Elvis was just a movie actor to me, and certainly his music (in my opinion at that time) was no big deal either.
When he took the stage, I understood. He was his own lightning storm, and his charisma extended outward in enormous beams. Women threw their underwear and room keys onto the stage. It was quite a phenomenon to witness, and he seemed to remain in his own bubble of sweetness and rather surprised, I think, at his own charisma.
But, back to my friend’s dinner party.
Her father, the retired English professor, asked me to describe growing up in Las Vegas in a sentence or two. I laughed and told him that I would work on that assignment, and on his return to the island, I would present him with a haiku of my experience.
Her parents returned recently, and for me a deadline is always a demanding muse, so I wrote the haiku in time for another lovely dinner party with them. In writing the haiku, which is a distillate of experience, I realized that my earliest and strongest memory of Las Vegas was not the elegant strip, and the great dinner shows, but the old downtown, which was called Glitter Gulch where the lights were always on. On Sunday mornings we would go downtown for brunch and I remember the giant neon cowboy waving his arm and saying “Howdy Pardner!”
A Vegas haiku
Neon cowboy through
Desert lightning rains echo
A Howdy Pardner
Joni recommends one of her favorite book of haikus, “The Essential Basho” by Matsuo Basho, as translated by Sam Hamill. Order it at your local island bookstore, Moonraker Books in Langley, Anchor Books and Coffee in Clinton or Wind & Tide Bookshop in Oak Harbor.
Joni Takanikos is a poet, chanteuse and cartographer of Truth and Beauty. Her home realm is Whidbey Island, but in recent years she has begun an exploration of other lands, which is a grand and exhilarating adventure in the “there and back again” style. Takanikos is currently playing Edith Piaf in Martha Furey’s play, “The Songbird of Paris: Edith Piaf,” at the Marsh Theater in Berkeley, Calif. through Dec. 1.