Vegas – Vegas – Vegas

Your evil inner child is waiting for you in Vegas – the part of you that wants to drink beer (no paper bag!) while slouching down the street and puff on cigars while walking around indoors. The only men in suits were casino management or grooms. It is the last American refugee of people who want to smoke cigarettes while using public restrooms (ashtrays in the bathroom stalls!). There are no curfews and no clocks (only one I saw was the trademark one on the Tiffany store) and no need for effort – moving sidewalks, escalators, elevators take you to the next (well sign-posted) attraction.

Oh yes, your evil inner child will revel in the ‘tasteful’ topless shows, the all-you-can-eat dinners, the REO Speedwagon songs drifting through the air and the Siberian white tigers. Your allergies will disappear because all the plants are plastic; you can go see any former star in concert without irony. Attempting to fit in, I tried to get us to go to “The Thunder Down Under” – Australian male dancers (ONLY because I have an Australian character in one of my books and wanted to take notes on their accents and common expressions. They ONLY take their clothes off to better express their emotional turmoil at being so far from home.) But even though her daughters were safely at her sister’s house and the man in her life was 100s of miles away, Zita, my friend who I traveled with, wanted to go to the Guggenheim art exhibit, the aquarium and a re-creation of a medieval tournament. I adore Zita but she doesn’t really understand the sacrifices necessary for quality book research.

It’s not that you CAN loaf about – they want you to – loafing is positively encouraged. Unbutton your shirt to your navel and fluff out your chest hair! Wear that orange-and-black-striped stretch crop top and camouflage pedal pushers! No Euro-trash here, just swarm after swarm of honest Americans enjoying their constitutional right to dress like 4-year olds in public. Every male from 4 to 84 in long, baggy shorts (who started this trend? can I slap him?), t-shirts and sneakers – they come loitering down the walkways crumpled and wrinkled as shar-peis.

So you would know what dens of iniquity to avoid, I kept careful notes but it appears someone spilled a Bellini on them, making them illegible but I want you to know Zita and I SACRIFICED ourselves for you, constantly stopping ourselves from having fun to scribble notes so that YOU the reader would have the FULL benefit of our accumulated wisdom. I would NEVER think of going someplace as garish as Vegas for my OWN pleasure. Dear readers, we did not selfishly sit in overstuffed cardinal-red velvet chairs at little white marble tables and drink pink cocktails with 11 ingredients placed on white linen coasters for our benefit – we did it to gain the energy to continue to explore (we ate every meal in a different hotel) only for your sake.

You can only talk about Vegas in a sarcastic tone, but since I can’t get out of bed without being sarcastic, it’s easy for me. Vegas is a deliberate ‘anti-place.’ It’s there to remind you of other places that you can’t get to or don’t want to go to, like Medieval England or Egypt, but because it has to squish everything together you get the (originally female) sphinx with King Tut’s face and a store featuring Native Americans in your fake Norman castle (as Zita says, “Native Americans are an important, but little known, part of the English Middle Ages”).

I liked Vegas because it reminded me of places I know (i.e. the Caribbean with palm trees, warm, sunny, ringed by mountains and the Middle East with all the white or silver cars that are very clean). But the aesthetics aren’t as impressive, not enough gilt (although even the police are trying, they have shiny gold helmets), not big enough chandeliers, the duct work and vents aren’t hidden well enough but there are same sort of immense, air-conditioned spaces that neither overwhelm nor amaze, like that hotel in Abu Dhabi with huge, empty open halls and vending machines from which you can buy gold bars.

The older hotels are situated in their specific location – they are set right next to the sidewalk and have little balconies. You can imagine people sitting outside, looking at the mountains, watching the street life below and drinking a lot of cheap beer – being in Vegas. All the new hotels are set back at least a block from the main road (so they have moving walkways to get you from the street to the inside) and could be designed for any city, any country. For example, the coolest take-home present has nothing to do with Vegas: go to the “M&M” store (2nd floor) and get a little baggie of M&M’s in all sorts of color that they never sell in the regular packages. Zita took some home for her girls, made sugar cookies, spread them with white frosting, explained the concept of “mosaics,” and let the girls make mosaic cookies, but then very few of us can be Zita.

Each of these new hotels has a theme, with two or three ‘attractions’ and several restaurants. At least two of the restaurants are in keeping with the theme (pirates, Italy, Paris…) and the rest are some combination of fake Mexican cantina, fake Italian trattoria, fake French café, fake English pub, fake sushi bar, fake Chinese – unexpectedly there was no Canadian cuisine to be found anywhere.

Thus the ‘Venetian’ one has two (count them TWO) fake canals with fake gondolas being fake driven by blond gondoliers singing 15 seconds of opera arias. They also have an art collection borrowed from the Guggenheim and a mini-Madame Tussaud’s. One of the many reasons why it is fun to travel with Zita is that she can quote like a fiend – when we went by Madame T’s she said “He is a man of wax” – which we ALL know is from Romeo and Juliet, she even knew the SCENE it was said in. Later that day she managed to slip in T.S. Eliot. When I complained that there were camel figures in the “Treasure Island” theme hotel, she said it was a “mixed metaphor,” later when we saw a most unlikely looking bridal couple, she said, “See, another mixed metaphor.” Yes, she’s a good one with a quip, inspecting an ersatz Roman colonnade, she said, “Ah, all the classical styles at once.”

One sad aspect about Vegas is all the brides, we saw about 7 a day. A woman in a floor-length white gown with veil was wandering around the lobby as we checked in at 1 am; she was alone and holding a plastic bottle of soda. The other sad aspect is the gambling. There is a slot machine for every passion – I Love New York, I Dream of Jeannie, gold mining, bass fishing, Little Red Riding Hood, vampires, diamonds, The Price is Right, Texas, zodiac signs, unicorns, Italy, Hawaii 5-0, dolphins – you just walk around until you find the ‘right’ one for you. (We assiduously gambled 50 cents each day – Zita came out $5 ahead. I lost every time.) At the card tables, Asian women deal to white frat boys (young and not young); crowds at the craps tables were more mixed, couples, all races and ages. I don’t understand why people don’t just walk up to the nearest hotel employee and hand over a few hundred dollars at the beginning of their stay, seems like that would be less painful. Zita said that of all the gambling she has seen and all the gamblers she has known, only THREE made money at it. Lots of grandparents at the gaming tables. My Grandma read me Anne of Green Gables and had cats; I am very, very lucky.

It is like the Middle East in that you are constantly aware of a lot of people who are barely getting by who make everything happen for you: bringing you more coffee, selling you postcards, taking your ticket for the roller coaster ride, selling you chocolates from Maxim’s de Paris – but for people in the Middle East, often their wages could buy them businesses and houses and a high level of security because it gave them a much higher standard of living then where they were from. The woman I went to at the salon was saving for her own salon in the Philippines, the woman who cleaned my house was saving for an apartment of her own in India, etc.  But the people who are working near the poverty line in Vegas have few opportunities to get out.

Zita, who used to deal poker in Montana (which I think is about as romantic and exciting a job as one could possibly have), says that the whole casino/ hotel business is quite feudal. One can look at Vegas hotel-casinos as a series of ‘castles’ owned by lords, tended by an innumerable number of serfs: busboys, bellhops, the people who service the slot machines, clean the craps tables, refill the platters at the buffets, wash the sheets, tune the air-conditioners, dust the plastic plants (which emit canned bird songs), make sure the aquariums get de-mucked. They don’t make much money but get a sort of reflected glow for being associated with “their” hotel.

Lots of people like Vegas (the air is so still I counted 14 airplane trails across the sky at one time) but although I was glad I went to see it – I would only go back as a way to see Zita. I know it’s silly to say “Oh I wish I had seen it before” but I think I would have liked Vegas a lot better back when it was sleazy and you sat on your balcony, looked at the mountains (instead of other casino high-rises), drank beer, thought tough thoughts, and looked at real gamblers (not your grandparents!), real bad guys (who would never dream of wearing baggy shorts) and women of questionable repute (what complements scenery better than a few women of questionable repute?). It would have been my kind of place, I would have worn pink lame with a feather boa and lost a few thou after a steak dinner and before going to hear Frank sing. Now it’s got no teeth and no shimmer – the Mall of America-West.

On the flight home from Vegas, I sat next to an Elvis impersonator which seemed appropriate. Vegas is a theme-park impersonating a town.