I’ve sat down to write this little entry, which I’d hoped would encapsulate everything amazing and terrible about the Las Vegas I saw over four days in early May, and I had a sudden, illuminating, terrifying realization: I don’t remember much. Rather than entertaining stories and insights, the only words in my head are Holy shit. I probably should have taken notes.
It’s hard to hold a pen and notepad when you have a rum and diet coke in either hand (I’m health conscious even when I’m getting blotto, which I guess says a lot about my personality type). Or when you need your digits to hit the “Maximum Credits” button on a Wheel of Fortune themed slot machine. Or when you’re walking down the Strip, trying not to bump into the wife-beater and backwards-hat wearing douchebags, the families taking their kids out in strollers for a walk through a casino at 3 am, the gaggles of 20-something girls clutching each other, trying to retain some semblance of class despite every indication that they are shitfaced and ready to puke mid-giggle.
So I’m going to go based on the few memories I know are accurate, a few I may have exaggerated, and one or two that might be entirely made up. In retrospect, it’s probably fitting that I was plastered off rum for most of the time there, as good old HST, author of The Rum Diary, also wrote the definitive account of self-destruction and analysis of why Vegas is so necessary to the continued existence of American illusions.
This is my story. I hope it’s true.
There are some people who understand Las Vegas, but I am not one of them.
Despite most tourists only staying on one street the entire time they’re there, it can be a hard city to navigate. The geography is easy. It’s the people that are hard to read.
The guy sitting at the blackjack table with me at the Planet Hollywood casino, skin tanned to a nice leathery sheen, keeps his cigarettes and stack of $25 chips constantly at the ready. He’s betting four of those chips at a time, $100 a hand at a table where the minimum is $15. This guy, he’s making kissy sounds to the short, ageless Asian dealer named Gem whenever she deals him a winning hand. They’re wet kisses, the kind that seem kind of obscene, especially coming from a man his age. It’s patronizing, sexist. He keeps his lips wet with the bottle of Miller Genuine Draft that he’s getting refills of, and the moist sound they make when he smacks them together result in a wave of nausea for a few seconds each time he does it. Gem flirts back, clearly hoping to pick up a few bucks in tips even if this man keeps losing at his current rate.
I never catch his name, but this guy, he understands Las Vegas. The two gawky guys to my left, jabbering at each other in what seems to be Chinese, losing hand after hand with silent despair, they’re like me. I don’t think they get it either.
Sometimes what you win isn’t in money, but I don’t know what the guy making kissy noises was winning. He seemed happy though.
Scratch that. I think I know what he’s getting. Some context might be important, but remember this point, we’re coming back to it.
There are seven of us, and we are in Vegas for Light Fair 2012. I assume this is the name of the event, though I will never step foot in the trade show. My roommate Daniel will, because he is a purveyor of lights, and has come specifically for this event, while the rest of us were just looking for an excuse to drink and gamble for four days. My friend Jonny will go, because he told Dan he would go with him. Neither of them seems to be sure if there’s a reason for him to attend beyond that. But there is a very good reason for Jonny not to attend, and that is because like the other five of us who are not Daniel, he got drunk the night before. Shitfaced, even. But that is not important. The important thing is that Daniel meets a former coworker of his, who sums up Las Vegas in a way I cannot beat.
“Las Vegas,” he apparently told Daniel, “is both the best place in the world and the worst at the same time.”
I told you it was a pretty good way of summing it up.
On our first morning, the seven of us headed to a rock bar inside the hotel, sat on the sunny terrace and drank ourselves some breakfast. Coffee with large sums of Irish Cream, silver and golden bulls filled with a sweet and sour, high octane blue lemonade, and in one case, a large beer.
Our waitress, clearly enjoying watching the tourists do stupid things at an early hour chats us up. The conversation turns to things you cannot do in Vegas.
“Pretty much anything goes,” she says. “Even if the cops do stop you, you can probably talk your way out of it.”
“Just don’t kill anybody.”
We won’t. Unless Joe Pesci and his brother appear in a cornfield, but this seems unlikely.
The next night, I see a large patrol of police, walking the Strip. Keeping the peace. They are followed by a reality television show camera crew.
Let’s just say that serving and protecting is just one of their priorities.
Anyway. The point is, there is a laissez faire attitude to everything. There is no morality, there are barely any laws, there is only what you can get away with.
That brings us back to our creepy friend at the blackjack table. Want to make inappropriate sexual gestures at a blackjack dealer? Feel free. You’re paying for the privilege after all.
This is all to say that Las Vegas is not a place filled with fear and loathing anymore. The truth is, there is nothing to fear. You are safer from bad people in Las Vegas than anywhere else. The mobsters and con men you see in Vegas movies from year’s past are all just nostalgic memories, to be evoked whenever the chance to profit off them appears. The cops may be reality TV stars, but the bouncers and security are very real, and they work for the Gods that rule the city like… um, Gods: the dealers, pit bosses, managers and owners for whom Vegas really exists.
You’re only in danger from yourself, and your inability to control your vices. Everything else is just gravy. The hotels make sure of that.
If it were up to the hotels, you would never fear anything again. Loathing would be a distant memory. All emotions would be, except the desire to stay another night, put another dollar in, and have another drink.
Not that I’m complaining. In small doses, it’s pretty goddam awesome. Las Vegas is necessary. It’s America’s overgrown id, and if they (and by extension us here in Canada) did not have it, I’m not sure what would happen. Anarchy, maybe.
Vegas is a representation of everything we want to be, and everything we’re horrified to become.
Vegas is the best place and the worst place in the world. Even for those who live there.
Cae in point. I’m absolutely ripped, it’s 2 am, and I’m talking to a slots attendant. He came down to Vegas to work and be near his Dad. There’s a lot of work to be had, a lot of money to be made, but this guy, he’s young, and he’s sick of it.
“I can see myself going up the coast. Maybe to Portland.”
He presses the little bug in his ear tighter, listens to the dispatcher at the other end of the radio, and starts to walk off. He turns to me and says “I really hate living here.”
As with all things that happen in that one bright spot of desert where anything goes, I think this happened, but I can’t prove it.