We had barely made it out of the airport when the cab driver struck up a conversation.
“You guys had a carnival yet?”
“We just got here.”
“You know what a carnival is?”
“It’s when you get a girl to sit on your face and you guess how much she weighs.”
Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas. I’d flown there with a few close friends and some vague notion of conducting a close up, hands on study of this American institution and all that it represented.
It’s tempting to describe Vegas as all style, no substance, but the truth is it doesn’t have a lot of style either. As we taxied down the boulevard, past a series of increasingly garish and massive hotels, I started to get a sense of the terrible scale of the place. The Las Vegas Strip is where the worst elements of America converge in a gross display of money fetishism and the extremes of wealth and poverty that it creates. It’s Wall Street meets Skid Row, and the whole spectacle inspires a feeling that lingers somewhere between awe and disgust. Nowhere is this feeling more pronounced than amongst the decadent squalor of one of the strips mega casinos. Built for same reason the Catholic Church has been building cathedrals for centuries, these monoliths are imposing shrines to the holy trinity of status, money and power.
We dropped our bags at our strip hotel and immediately made arrangements for a rental car. We had an appointment out in the desert at a little border town called Mesquite. There’s a tiny airstrip on the edge of town and we’d organized for a guy called Jim to take us up in his 1967 single-engine Cessna Skyhawk, with the intention of jumping out and torpedoing back to earth at terminal velocity. I figured it would give us a good starting point, get the necessary perspective on the place and all that.
But the reality of the thing is, to appreciate just how bizarre Vegas is you really need to approach it by ground, along the I-15 from the Arizona border. Drive at high speed for a couple of hours, through the dusty dry heat of the desert. Just when you have begun to accept that this is all there is, and all that could ever be, the mountains give way to a huge arid basin. Nestled in the middle is the epically ambitious city of Las Vegas, a shimmering mirage of skyscrapers and golf courses dropped amidst the Mojave desert- triumphantly defiant of its surroundings and all godly reason. It is only then that you can understand what a truly unlikely thing it is they have built.
At end of the first day we figured it was about time we made our donation to the near 10 billion dollar collection plate that is the Las Vegas gambling industry. It’s an industry with a criminal hangover that lingers to this day, as our cab driver explained over his shoulder while we sat in traffic on Sahara Ave.
“There’s old guys workin’ in these casinos that were first employed by the mob back in the day, that are still around. You see guys in their sixties still working as bell boys. You know why? Cause they’re making a hundred g’s a year in tips.
“In alotta ways it was better back then. You didn’t have these fuckin’ animals,” he motioned to a drunken homeless man staggering along the footpath, “wandering all over the place. They took care of it, and people knew how to behave themselves.” I shuddered at the sinister implication.
We asked him to take us somewhere cheap with a bit of character, maybe somewhere off-strip where we could get a taste of the ‘real Vegas’. We ended up in the Hooters Casino Resort, which offers up discount hot wings and chesty college dropouts to the leathery boozehounds and other assorted low rollers that constitute its patronage. But the beer was cheap, and that’s all that really matters when you’re trying to facilitate cross-cultural understanding in a place as weird as this.
The casino floor is as good a place for people watching as I’ve ever found. I was immediately fascinated by the vacant boredom in the eyes of a table dancer as she gyrated awkwardly to hits of the 90s. It was a hint of pure and unhappy truth in a world of flashy illusions. Around her sat several sweaty incarnations of the Middle American man, each fingering his chips greedily as he went about learning the hard way that inhibitions exist for a reason.
A sad excuse for a good time, to be sure.
The memories get a little hazy as the week rolled on. Night after day, we crisscrossed our way up and down the strip, chasing all the deliciously self-destructive ingredients of a Good Night Out. Caesar’s Palace, The Las Vegas Hilton, Planet Hollywood, Circus Circus, Paris, Flamingo– the gaudy carpets and seemingly infinite arrays of slot machines all began to blur together in a timeless and lightly scented whir of increasingly poor decisions.
At one stage I found myself in the elevator of some casino or other, the doors opening to reveal a young man that looked as though he might have once starred as an absent father in an episode of 16 and Pregnant. He had a to-hell- and-back look about him that would have been alarming were my eyes not immediately distracted by the freshly tattooed initials ‘LV’ that adorned each side of his face. The skin was still raised and red, hinting at a terrible life decision having newly been made. Without a word, he staggered in and leaned heavily against the wall, giving off a powerful aroma of hard liquor and easy women. He was clearly a man with a story that begged to be told, but I didn’t dare engage him. The poor fool was about to wake up to that cruel non-sequitur that is a post blackout hangover, with nothing but a few toxic memories and a face tattoo to boot.
It was becoming apparent that Vegas is caught in an interminable identity crisis, forever straddling two opposing and equally troubling visions. On the one hand is its family friendly themed-resorts, where Mom and Dad can bring the kids to watch them gamble away their college savings. On the other is its ‘Sin City’ reputation, where fast money meets cheap whores in a happy transaction of cash and diseases. It’s a schizophrenic contrast for any visitor. Within 30 seconds you can go from perusing the Disney store, to being tempted by offers of cocaine by a boisterous hustler with two teeth and three kids. The opportunity to lose yourself in sinful abandon is only ever a few spins of their wheel of misfortune away.
On our last night there, we drunkenly wandered down to Fremont Street, searching out whatever action might come our way. My attention was caught by the howling glow of a large neon sign, advertising a place called the Heart Attack Grill and their policy of feeding the morbidly obese something called a ‘Triple Bypass Burger’. Anybody weighing in at over 350 pounds eats free. It felt like some sort of surreal experiment, a cruel in-joke with Satan himself. A local I got talking to at our hotel later told me that Red Cross officials have been pressuring the owner to purchase a defibrillator for the premises, after several patrons have died of a heart attack whilst eating there. The owner has refused, although he has installed the cabinet for one. It currently has a bottle of whiskey in it.
The restaurant is but one crass and self-aware embodiment of the philosophy that is everything wrong with America- the childish idea that there is no such thing as too much.
As I sat in the departures lounge of McCarran International Airport, there were two recurring themes that kept swimming through my head. Self-destruction and excess. Excess and self-destruction. These are, as I see it, the defining characteristics of Las Vegas. And it begs the question, how much longer can Vegas keep up this rock and roll lifestyle? How does this story end?
The answer came to me as I leafed through a copy of the local newspaper, the fittingly named Las Vegas Sun. …soaring temperatures…unprecedented water crisis…rampant wildfires…catastrophic effects… The more I read, the more I became convinced that the party might soon be over. Researchers predict that with current trends in global climate, Lake Mead (which supplies most of Las Vegas’ water and power) could evaporate as soon as 2021, along with any residual delusions that maintaining a paradise in the desert is in any way sustainable. The realities of building a metropolis in the dust are rapidly catching up with Vegas, and it’s looking increasingly likely that there will come a time in the near future when maintaining the city will simply not be feasible.
And while island communities in Bangladesh and the Pacific have been disappearing quietly under rising sea levels for years now, Las Vegas may be among the first dominos to fall in this weird new world that doesn’t just affect the voiceless and poor. Vegas could well be the proverbial canary in the coalmine for the wild West and its American Empire, a sacrificial lamb that will serve as a timely reminder of our own fallibility.
Vegas is the mac and cheese that America cooked up whilst drunk on oil and power and the immense possibilities of the industrialized age. It’s tasteless, gratuitous and totally lacking in (moral) fiber. A fading souvenir of 20th century excess.
It seemed like such a good idea at the time. So see it now, if that’s your thing, before Mother Nature delivers up a ferocious bitch slap to our simian wrists for daring to smear the world in our ungodly shit. Vegas might not be the first casualty, and it certainly won’t be the last, but if we’re lucky it might just be the wake up call we need.
As for me, I don’t think I’ll be coming back.
Written by Zac Black.