Since the days of Joni Mitchell, and probably since the days of Geoff Chaucer, the term “tourist town” has been a pejorative epithet of the highest order, recalling visions of the Ugly American, with his reversed values: the sensual over the spiritual, plenty over moderation, convenience over discipline, and money over meaning. The issue of time is central—easy money means quick money. When Hunter S. Thompson covered Las Vegas for Rolling Stone, his gonzo journalism took these premises and created a character to match the city. While he is dead, Las Vegas lives on, no place illustrates the contradictory nature of Americans’ relationship with money than its carnival city of lights and sin.
I visited Las Vegas last weekend, to witness the wedding of my brother-in-law and his partner. My wife Jess and her mother joined us. On the way home on the commercial flight, my mother-in-law defined the town to its brass tacks: “I got on the plane, and I thought someone was smoking. Turns out it was everybody’s clothes.” The lights, noise, stimulation, and smoke currently have me exhausted, although I left Las Vegas yesterday morning.
Another hallmark for Vegas is the decadent beauty of the Caesar’s Palace casino coupled with its statues made of plastic. During our brief visit, its animatronic shows malfunctioned, but the endless haute couture shops impressed upon us a never-before-seen worldliness. Again, the surprising contrasts affect one the most: water fountains in the middle of the desert, a huge statue of a lion outside the MGM, skyscraping hotel-casinos rising up from the dirt.
Our most entertaining evening was an excellent French meal at Mon Ami Gabi in front of the Bellagio water fountains. Please, reader, follow my father Rich’s rule to “not order something you can cook yourself” when at a fine restaurant. My wife, of course, ordered a pounded steak whose quality would have embarrassed this barbeque maven. My trout plate was delicious. Since this was our first night in town, the sounds, sights, and smoke had not yet infiltrated our innocent Midwestern blood.
You cannot go to Las Vegas and not gamble; one can only hope to not lose too much money. And it’s not a “family vacation” place, either—of many thousands of tourists that I shuffled alongside, I saw less than ten children. The people-watching may entertain you the most. Check hotchickswithdouchebags.com, and you’ll find what I’m talking about, because the photos are often from Vegas. If I go a second time, I would like to work out, tan, groom, and wear metrosexual clothing alongside my d-bag brothers. The women take this approach as well, in their own way. Something about the town made me want to be as embarrassingly garish as possible.
Since I lived for three years in Tucson, Arizona, I know the endemic problems of cities in the American Southwest: a transient populace, crime, poverty, inequality, and heightened race relations due to illegal immigration. Check Las Vegas off for each. Their hometown newspaper’s web site recently had an interesting headline: “Las Vegas holds on to nation’s highest foreclosure rate.” Yep, worse than Detroit. Tourism functions as the economy’s canary in the mine, and witness Las Vegas’ stalled construction projects, with their cranes unmoving. If Americans may poll for McCain, Obama need merely remind them of their empty pocketbooks.
At our hotel, Harrah’s, we enjoyed a good buffet restaurant reasonably priced with a $15 breakfast with pre-cracked crab legs. However, the smoke emanating from the nearby slot machines bruised the experience our second time through. One theme of Hunter S. Thompson’s is the wild chase for a free meal—the impossible oasis in the desert. Friend, while there are free drinks aplenty, there is no free meal. But use the complimentary drinks all you want—Vegas is made of the social lubricant. As long as you’re sitting at a table or a slot machine, you may tip your hostess and need not pay for the Bud Light or watered-down Bacardi and Coke, or whatever suits your fancy.
Choose your hotel and your stalking grounds wisely, because each resort and casino has its own flavor: there are dumps, and there are Valhallas. I told my wife that “Harrah’s is for the Nebraska Trucker’s Association.” Its pool, with a view of nothing but hotel walls, is a 1970s rectangle. The Imperial Palace has a 1960s feel, with essentially no updates; the IP is the only casino where one can get “alone time” at a slot machine, free of putrid smoke and constant noise.
Across the street, the Mirage was filled with California weekenders enjoying a beautiful desert forest with an elegant, large pool manned with lifeguards. Caesar’s Palace housed Mexico’s elite class for the Luis Miguel show; actually, their elite-elite. The MGM is for California and Arizona’s middle class. I imagine each casino has its demographic. I had hoped to make it up to North Las Vegas for a trashy diner getaway, but was scared off by headlines noting the area’s prevalent crime. We did, however, experience a Terrible Buffet at the Imperial Palace.
I regret having missed the opportunity to play the Star Wars-themed slot machine, of which I saw only two. Incidentally, our only “strike it rich” moment was when my wife earned $100 with a royal flush on a video poker machine. This covered most of our gambling expenses, because of our new tightfisted money philosophy.
The Fremont Street light show gave us some diversion, as well as stiff necks. It’s a two-block-long high ceiling of LED lights that displays visuals at the same quality as an oversized television screen at a sports venue. Fremont Street is “downtown” and a little off the Strip—i.e. Las Vegas Boulevard—and is the original casino area.
Las Vegas has become known as an entertainment mecca, putting Branson, Missouri, to shame. But all of the advertising around town—in one form, trucks with advertisements that simply drive up and down the Strip—intimate that Vegas only has the likes of two-bit comedians (Rita Rudner), Johnny-come-lately magicians (Lance Burton), and aging, tired lounge singers (Tom Jones, Donnie and Marie Osmond). Coupled with the overtly themed casinos, the entertainment would seem to create Kitsch City at the same time as Sin City.
However, our party was lucky enough to attend a show of Zumanity, a Cirque de Soleil burlesque show, which amazed all of us. While my most recent burlesque show brought me onstage, Saturday night had me quietly watching gorgeous gymnasts jump in and out of water, an amazing male contortionist, an orgasm-depicting high-wire act, and a dwarf performer flying around not only stage but also the whole theater. This edgy show proved that Las Vegas entertainment doesn’t have to suck—there’s something for everyone, including the avant-garde.
Expect to walk a lot in Vegas—in fact, plan out a walking program to prepare your legs. Don’t expect much from the free shows, because you’ll have to walk through an entire casino to find, for example, that the MGM lion is sleeping out of sight. And the monorail, which costs $12 a day, will take you to many casinos, but you’ll have to walk a long way—and it’s much longer to bypass the slot-machine warehouses. Surely, this is by design.
To return to my theme of money, you’ll find in Las Vegas a Valhalla for the post-industrial economy. A veritable city descends on the Strip every day (and every night) to toss cards, clean slot machines, cook food, serve drinks, and manage every aspect of the casino-hotel-resort “industrial” complex. Ride the monorail beside the Wynn to find a seemingly mile-long parking garage that reads, “Wynn Employee Parking.” Notice a hangar-sized building emblazoned with “Casino Employment.” The service industry is real work, too, but no superpower has relied on other countries for its material goods. The Las Vegas economy is the prime example of late-phase capitalism, where nothing gets produced, save the accrual on gigantic initial investments.
As with any Southwestern city, there is an authentic seediness underneath the gleam. Six construction workers fell to their deaths last year while building new skyscrapers. The gigantic tax base builds new roads, employs legions of cops to keep the tourists’ safety, and makes the UNLV basketball arena suitable for the NBA All-Star Game, but I would wince to look at North Las Vegas’ schools for the children of hotel cleaning ladies and construction grunts.
Reading A History of the United States by Cecil Chesterton on my trip, my thoughts were with an America still throttling one demographic’s freedom for the benefit of another. We once removed the Indian squatters, enslaved the black African, and sent the Irish and Scotch to work in the slaughtering yards. Now, in an irony of history, a fleet of diverse service workers cater to our needs for alcohol, tobacco, attractive flesh, and easy money. But Bacchus cannot smile on this—Las Vegas is a lonely place.