Dios mio, Las Vegas. I had been there several times before, but always on the way to or from somewhere else, somewhere in nature, which always made the city even stranger than it might normally be. I never had the urge to just go there. This was my first proper trip to Las Vegas: 4 days, 3 nights, just Vegas.
What can I say that hasn’t already been said? It’s almost too easy a target, too easy to figure out and explain away, which I guess is part of why I find it not so interesting a destination. That said, I had a wonderful time! Cartoon samsara, a friend called it, and the description fits. Here, just below the shiny surface, all of life’s sad sufferings and addictions are on proud, tawdry display. Its excesses are legendary. They’re what make Vegas, Vegas.
Pretend you’re rich. Try that on and see what it feels like. (Isn’t that why poor people vote for the likes of Mitt Romney?) Pretend you’re a high-roller. Pretend you’re a whore.
All this pretending is fine, amusing even, just so long as nobody gets hurt. In few other places is the people-watching so much fun. Ask a shopkeeper to break a hundred to buy a pack of gum, flash it so we all notice, act all peeved if she can’t change it. Light up a shit-smelling cigar and pollute the whole 8-pool Garden of the Gods. Loudly school the spa shop worker on the awesomeness of botox. Load up your plate again at the buffet. You waited in a long enough line, you deserve it!
And the drinking, my god! Order another 32-ounce slushy drink with the $5 extra shot, by all means. Yes, you can carry it around outside, and when you plant yourself face-first drunk on the pedestrian bridge (as happens way more often than you’d imagine), you won’t break the “glass” because it’s plastic. Everything’s plastic, spray-painted gold.
And yet, people love it. You notice as soon as you get to the departure gate in your home city airport. Everyone is so excited to be going to Vegas, to live out their fantasies, try their luck at becoming a millionaire, shop for things they can’t afford, and most of all, be a little naughty.
The tourist board knew what they were doing with that tacky “what happens in Vegas” line. (Imagine, a whole huge ad campaign built around adultery, or maybe they want you to try out that gay thing.) I don’t know if they’re still running the ad campaign, but it doesn’t matter — it lives on.
There’s a great Japanese movie, After Life (1998). In it, those who die are interviewed before going to heaven, and they have to choose their happiest memory, which then becomes their eternity. All the young girls choose Disneyland, and the interviewers gently try to talk them out of it, with mixed success. I suspect an American version of that film might have a lot of adults choosing Las Vegas.
It’s a fantasy land, but I’m guessing the draw for a lot of people is not even so exotic as living out some wild sex fantasy, despite all the effort put in by the tourism folks encouraging them to do so. No, it’s just about their getting away from a monotonous existence, the tedious cycle of their unfulfilling lives, if only for a long weekend, trading one samsara for a flashier ’nother.
It was interesting talking to people who actually live and work in Las Vegas — they seemed happier to me, or at least more balanced, than most of the tourists…I guess because they weren’t on vacation, trying too hard to have fun or win or be someone they’re not. I wonder where Vegas people go on vacation. I’d like to think they spend time in nature, tired of the glitz and the hustle, but they might not.
The newer casinos are really trying to shed the ’60s and ’70s image — think Petula Clark and Viva Las Vegas — and cater to something more current and sophisticated, and the restaurants and shows — Blink-182 versus Donny and Marie, for example — reflect that. There’s a palpable class system separating the Bellagio’s upscale patrons from the down-at-the-heels Flamingo’s, but it’s all about chasing the same escapist dream.
It can be fun to goof on the craziness of it all — that sustained me for the first half of my trip; that and the fact that I am now the perfect, late-Boomer, Vegas-visitor-with-some-money target age, so I get to hear the Rod Stewart, Elton John, and Bob Seger hits I grew up with piped in wherever I go.
The strangeness of it all, like the extreme desert heat, hits you right away. On the shuttle in from the airport, I could see Egypt, New York, and Paris all at once. (Take that, Sarah Palin!) Stopped at a light, excited old folks oohed and aahed, pointing out the Chrysler Building and the Statue of Liberty. I didn’t have the heart to tell them they weren’t the real thing.
I’m joking. They know it’s not real. But, most people seem to have an easier time than I do suspending disbelief, with or without a drink or ten. I kind of envy them. Pretend you’re in Rome, in Paris, in Venice! I kept squinting and trying to imagine it, but all I could see was Vegas.