Friday, June 13, 2008

F'Loathing in Las Vegas

Well, I’m not afraid of the place, and I’m not exactly hating it, but I had to pay some homage to the Thompson title, right?

I didn’t make it to the desert, the edge or otherwise, and left all drugs back home—I’ve been incredibly sober the last two days, but I think artificial stimulation, at this point, would cause utter mental breakdown.

We suffered through a three-hour delay at JFK—one hour waiting for the world’s bitchiest flight crew and another two waiting for fucking catering! (See Debbie Rochon’s rant about flying here). We were kicked repeatedly for seven hours by two restless kids and their horrifying gorgon of a mother. The Pakistani air force pilot next to us laughed each time the plane captain’s voice came over the PA, to update us about the catering delay. The stewardesses were even crankier than the passengers. Finally, we landed in the Land of Utter Excess about 4am East Coast time. If just being in Vegas wasn’t surreal enough, seeing it through sleep-deprived eyes was almost mystical. The shuttle to our hotel took us from one end of the Strip to the other, passing the Sphinx at the Luxor, the crowded simulated skyline of New York-New York, the beached pirate ships of Treasure Island, the lethal sliver of the MGM Grand, the colonnades of Caesar’s Palace, still alive and thriving and shining in what used to be a barren desert less than a hundred years ago.

We were in Sin City for Amy’s youngest sister’s wedding. When I first met Danielle, she had just turned 12 and I was dressed as Dr. Frankenfurter at the Hollywood Theater in Dormont, PA. Fifteen years later, she’s getting married in the City That Doesn’t Regret and I’ve been up for twenty-five hours.

We were staying at the ass-end of the Strip, at Circus Circus. In Hunter Thompson’s famous tome, Circus Circus was a gaudy, crowded haven for middle class America, reptilian travelers in hats and sandals who sat in bars and at slot machines while acrobats whirled and flew above them. The only thing that has changed, it seems, is that Circus Circus now caters to the lower middle class “economy” families and the acrobats have been moved to a small stage in an upper level of the casino. For insurance reasons, no doubt.

Circus Circus, like the rest of the hotel/casinos, is more than a mile long, with multiple levels, towers and acres of noisy, bright, flashing, beeping slot machines. There are zombies perched in front of these mechanical monsters, staring with either dead eyes as the electric images flash at the beckoning of each coin or “credit” fed it, or fixed with an intensity that seem to focus their inner will, hoping this next spin will make them a winner. It’s bright, loud, hard—if there aren’t slot machines, there are hallways of shops and souvenir stands. There are video game arcades for the children—those forbidden from the gaming pits—and one of the largest indoor theme parks in America. Just an hour ago, I was standing beneath a roaring roller coaster, showered by the screams of children. There’s a miniature golf course a few feet to my left, a laser tag arena behind me.

You have to pass through these areas to get to the elevators that will, possibly, if you take the right one, take you to your room. The rooms here are drab, ugly, the televisions small, the wireless internet expensive—they don’t want you in here. They want you out there. Spend money. Go to the buffet—gorge yourself on multiple trips or you won’t get your money’s worth. Sit at the no-armed flashing bandits, middle-aged women of all nationalities will bring you drinks while you sit and feed the Daleks Of Chance.

Outside, it’s hot. Not East Coast hot, though. A dry, pressing heat, like standing in a microwave oven, sucking moisture from your body—you’re not sweating; you’re evaporating. But fortunately, you’re just a few feet away from another magnificent multi-mile hotel. And inside, the average temperature is about 55 degrees Fahrenheit. You’ll pass outdoor cafes, too, where the icy air conditioning spills out into the street, and you’ll marvel that there aren’t tornadoes forming on the stairs.

Most of the hotels are owned by the same corporation, so you can access one from another via a catwalk. You take Mandalay Bay to the Luxor to the Excalibur, moving from South Africa to Egypt to a Lego vision of medieval times. There’s an M&M world down the road from New York-New York—after you pass a gauntlet of Latinos passing out stacks of coupons for discount hookers—and in M&M world, you can buy every possible, conceivable piece of merchandise with the M&M cartoon characters emblazoned. You can get virtually anything there with M&Ms on it, though, ironically, you have to search for actual M&Ms. There, at the back, on the second floor of the four-floor shop, are tubes filled with customizable M&Ms. A two-pound bag will cost you $22. Across the street, at Target, you can get two pounds for $5. But that doesn’t stop parents and children from filling clear plastic sleeves to the top.

Above you, New York-New York’s own roller coaster roars past a scale Statue of Liberty. The buildings, so famous in the real New York, are the hotel room towers. In the Luxor, the rooms are built into the tapering, sloping walls of the pyramid. Everywhere, everywhere, the Daleks of Chance and the zombies feeding money into the hungry slots. If you make eye-contact with the men or women in suits in any of the pit areas, they will entice you with “free” show tickets or discount meals—all you have to do is visit this hotel or that for “just” two hours or so…

I pass by a stand selling margaritas by the yard—above me is a sign advertising Carrot Top’s show. Next to that, one for Criss Angel the (mind)Freak. I hope to see either of them in the hotel. Maybe throwing a punch at either of these idiots would break my trance.

There’s almost too much to see. Take away the “almost”. Here we are, moving as a pack, the happy family among other happy family packs, and we’re in an aquarium in the center of Mandalay Bay, accessible through the casino and past the opulent hotels—and a winery where “angels” fly up to retrieve your $300+ bottle of Chardonnay.

We leave the family—I have to pick up my tuxedo at the Men’s Warehouse. It’s not on the Strip. It’s 3.3 miles from where we are and I don’t want to pay $15 for a cab. The excess around me is making my stingier by the minute. We’ve already splurged for an all-day bus pass. We transfer busses twice and walk half-a-mile with the setting sun burning a tunnel through the sides of our heads. The women who work there want me to try on my tuxedo. I’m a sheen of perspiration and sore feet and screaming back and walking, grumpy misery. I try on my tux. It fits. We splurge for a cab back to Circus Circus.

It takes us another half hour to navigate our way back to the rooms. We stop for directions—two carnival workers don’t speak English, two others have never been to the hotel portion of Circus Circus. None of the diorama maps contain the phrase “You Are Here”—they don’t want you to know. They want you to be lost. Lost people can be distracted by the lights, the sounds, the colors, the alcohol, food, carnival games, toys, Daleks Of Chance. I wish I’d grabbed one of the coupons for the discount hookers, just to say I had one.

Our room has a beautiful view of “Old Vegas”. Fremont Street—past the swimming pools and whatever that Seattle Space Needle thing is that I keep forgetting to look up. I watch the news. Never once do they mention “CSI” at the scene of the murders that have happened since we arrived two days ago. They don’t call that division “CSI” here, but aside from Robert Urich as Dan Tanna, “CSI” is my only point of view for Vegas. Well, that and the strips that are constantly under threat in Michael Bay and Bruckheimer movies.

Tomorrow, who knows? We want to go to Old Vegas, and stomp around where Elvis and the Rat Pack and the mob had all tread before us. I want to drink a Hurricane out of a three-foot glass and put the expense out of my mind. I want to put the cynicism to rest, forget how much of the world—how much of America—is hungry and homeless. Outside the MGM Grand, a man sits crosslegged holding a cardboard sign reading “Please Help” and “God Bless”. People pass him without seeing him, watching the video billboards for Cirque Du Soleil and Cathy Griffin and the roaring of the NY-NY roller coaster. I almost don’t see him either—not that I had anything to give him. I’d left my cash in the hotel room, purposefully, aiding in my resistance to ridiculous Capitalism. My proletariat back has been up all day, much to the consternation of my family.

I’m waiting now. For Amy and her mom and sisters to return from their spa treatments. For Brian, the groom, and his best man to return from another trip to… somewhere. In three hours, I’ll don the hard-earned tuxedo and watch my youngest sister-in-law marry the man she loves. Later, Amy and I will join the newly-married couple and our extended family in a gondola ride inside the Venetian Hotel and Casino. Inside. The inside technology here is amazing.

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