My writing career has suffered during this economic downturn. Columns cancelled, magazines disappearing, pay dropping. My financial situation is, shall we say, less than optimal. So instead of putting aside those few extra pennies to pay off a smidgen more debt (or visit the dentist), I decided to go for broke and head for Las Vegas. I gambled, I drank margaritas, I got two free cocktail shakers. And that was just the airport.
Vegas, too, is suffering. Tourism has dropped, with entire wings of hotels being shut down. New construction has slowed, or halted completely. This means travel deals are pretty easy to find: I scored four nights at a mid-Strip hotel (the down-at-heel Imperial Palace — avoid the buffet), including airfare (on Southwest) for $400. All the better to submerge myself in that alternate reality that is Las Vegas.
It hits you as soon as you step into the terminal at McCarran International Airport: that constant ding-ding-ding of the slot machines (yes, there are slots at the airport). It’s the first step in the disorientation program that’s designed to part you from your money in as painless a fashion as possible. The casinos have no windows, the doors are tinted, and the lights are somewhat dim, keeping you in a perpetual twilight. The rugs sport garish geometrical designs and the ceilings are low, heightening the feeling of claustrophobia. If you sit at a slot long enough, a waitress will come by to ply you with free alcohol. After a drink or two, the ding-ding-ding of the slots becomes a soothing lull. There are no clocks anywhere, so it’s easy to lose track of time, putting another dollar in the slot as you tell yourself just one more spin will do it, one more spin ...
Tourism may be down, but it’s hard to tell when you’re in the tourist centers of Las Vegas Blvd. (“The Strip”) or Fremont Street downtown (where the first Vegas casinos emerged).
The streets are clogged with folks, and the description of an “adult Disneyland” is apt: people wander about wearing the kind of funny hats usually reserved for frat parties, swilling down alcoholic drinks in huge glasses. That’s the operative word for Vegas (and America?): huge. Anyone wondering about the roots of America’s obesity problem need look no further than Vegas, where drinks are served in yard-long glasses, and outdoor stands don’t just offer fried Twinkies, but fried Snickers, Oreos, and Reese’s as well (each topped with whipped cream, powdered sugar, and chocolate syrup). Your gluttony is even rewarded: a restaurant advertising a six-pound burrito promised “Finish it, and it’s free!” You can publicly attest to your consumptive habits by picking up a t-shirt reading “Little Miss Rehab.” It’s a city where super-sized is the default option.
It’s a fascinating spectacle to observe. Foreigners stock up on cheap goods the way Americans snap up stuff in Mexico. What kind of a skewed vision of the States would they get if Vegas were the only American city they visited? One shudders at the thought. Vegas epitomizes America’s consumerist ethic, running rampant without any constraints.
I’m not actually much of a gambler. I doubt I spent more than $20 (and five of that was a credit I got from my hotel), so I really do go more for the spectacle, and the shows. Hotel prices might be down, the show prices are not. I wanted to check out the new Cirque du Soleil creation, Viva Elvis, in part because my next book, out in May from Jawbone Press, is also about Elvis: Return Of The King: Elvis Presley’s Great Comeback (and that’s my bit of self-promotion for the month). It’s a fun, if flawed, production, which basically creates different set pieces to some of Elvis’ trademark songs. “One Night” has Elvis and his twin (who died at birth) doing gymnastics on a giant guitar. “Viva Las Vegas” (the town’s unofficial theme song) has Elvi of every gender and race gyrating away in jumpsuits. But “Gotta Lot O’ Livin’ To Do” has superheroes (Elvis liked comic books, you see) leaping about on trampolines, while “It’s Now Or Never” has young women cavorting around what appear to be stripper poles. The point being made isn’t exactly clear.
Elvis himself could be seen as a metaphor for the dark side of the Vegas experience: a man who let his desire to consume eventually consume himself. If that’s a prediction, or a warning, for the country, it appears it will go unheeded. Lady Luck smiles, encouraging you to give it one more spin. And I have to admit, coming back to Seattle I missed all that frenetic activity. Even the sun here doesn’t seem to shine as brightly.