I didn't plan to go to Vegas. They knew how to twist my arm though — I'm not a particularly hard sell when it comes to spontaneous travel, especially when I've been drinking whiskey.
And so at 6:30 the next morning my alarm went off, my stomach was churning like a cement mixer and I had a email with a flight confirmation, the text message on my phone told me how much money I'd be wasting if I missed it. They knew how to twist my arm.
I'd never flown over the desert before. The cold blue morning light and the endless ripples of dark brown rocks floated by the window as I drifted in and out of sleep. And then Vegas. From the air the city looks exactly like a Google Earth panorama — swathes of featureless suburbia surrounding the blocky buildings of the strip. As we landed the desert air threw the plane about like tumbleweed.
Vegas has an almost mythological reputation; a mirage of glamour, glitz and gambling - in this desert people don't dream of water, they dream of money. It is a place synonymous with excess and reckless abandon. The backdrop to a thousand films, and yet built like a movie set, filled with well dressed people and optimism, but built upon their shattered dreams. I had no idea what to expect — it seemed so ludicrous, so contradictory — and yet every American I had met was captivated &mdash
I had to visit, I'd love it, they told me — it seemed so ingrained into the American psyche — Vegas was where you went for a good time. And I was a little caught up in the idea — after all who can't be excited at the sound of a city built for the sole purpose of having a good time?
We were checking into the Venetian. Our taxi had dropped us next door in the Palazzo so we had to wander through the marble halls, through the Casino, past the fountains filled with cranberries, to the elevators at the far end. I'd been bracing myself to hate the place, but I was too excited. The suite was as ridiculous as the hotel. Three televisions, a window overlooking the madness of the strip, marble sinks in the bathroom — ridiculous.
After dumping our stuff, and changing out of last nights clothes we grabbed the elevator back downstairs. The same song was playing as we descended — big girls don't cry. Out onto the strip and into the cold winter sunshine.
The strip is a sensory overload, as if a thousand movies are being made on a single road. Thousands of windows stare down from the monolithic hotels walling each side, suited men and dolled up women parade down the sidewalks and limousines compete with sports cars and billboard trucks for the strip itself. It is lined with casinos, each engaged in a battle for the most ludicrous gimmick — venetian canals, jungle volcanoes, the Eiffel tower. Inside they begin to merge into one though, because, although the decor matches the theme of the resort, the ubiquitous slot machines and the ranks of blackjack tables, the smell of disinfectant and smoke, the murky light and the restaurant-bars — all are the same — a disorienting maze from game room to game room.
We walk through the jungle of the Mirage and into the marble colonnade of Caesars. The day passes in a haze of drinks and blackjack. I lose 40 bucks in 2 hands and remember why I hate gambling. I'm content to watch the others fighting the statistics of the game, getting caught up on a 'hot' table, only to be sobered by mathematical karma. A waitress old enough to be my grandmother wearing little more than underwear brings us drinks — if you're gambling they're free, or as free as they can be while you are throwing chips onto the table.
We smoke cigars outside a bar and watch the winter's wind blowing down the strip, ruffling the perfectly manicured palm trees; the sun being replaced by a host of neon. The signs for the resorts explode with fireworks, or glitter with stars. Hundred foot sports cars race cross buildings, chased by marketing copy. A constant stream of people meander down the street. The air is filled with music, cars and voices.
Although I joined at the last minute, the night has been planned in meticulous detail — it's a work outing and some people love obsessing over details. I'm happy to make the most of their work, and although I missed the company subsidised happy hour while changing into my suit, I manage to make the most of several of the stretch Limo's that had been hired. The same song plays in the elevator as I return from getting dressed.
We eat at a Taco joint off the strip. The air is seedier, the clubs dirtier, the air less frenetic. Still the unescapable neon lights border the streets and the ringing cacophony of slot machines pound the senses. Here though, there is a grimier desperation, a weary resignation in the faces of the croupiers and sense of impatience for the crowds to lose their money and leave. I couldn't shake the thought that the disorienting floor plan, the dim lights, the complete isolation from anything external, was all social engineering — designed and tested to optimally trap people and take their money. It was robbery by interior design.
The group had pre-booked a table at a club, but by that time I was too tired and burnt out to want to spend the $50 cover, so opt instead to walk down the strip and see the lights. The excitement has worn off, and I'm running on the dregs of a steak and beer, my stomach is still hating me for the night before. I've seen too many washed up, stretch-marked waitresses; too many whored up girls on the arm of a slimy guy; too many children being dragged along by parents past the lines of grafters pushing porn ads; too many people throwing wages into the green felted void; too much meaningless nudity; too much tacky glitz. My faith in humanity is all but gone, and the spectacular fountains at the Bellaggio can't bring it back.
I began to see the city as it is — A shrine to hedonism, ostentatious wealth and human nature at it's most base — A neon dream supported by the silicon enhanced fantasies of an insecure nation. This is capitalism at it's most visceral — a town built to launder mafia money, now extorting people for their 'happiness' — a money grubbing perversion of the American dream.
Here everything has a price — women selling themselves for a thousandth of the price of the luxury watches strewn about the windows of the endless malls, bottles of water costing more than a week of third world meals. Everything is for show. The shallowness of the place is unescapeable — from the fake marble columns, to the fake European streets, to the fake botox smiles, it's all about building an illusion — trying to compensate for what is lacking — consumerism disguised as freedom, gambling disguised as opportunity, damaged girls disguised as sirens. This is a microcosm of America at it's worst, the American promise of opportunity unfettered by morality or conscience.
To me it seems unconscionable — the hordes of people taunted by their instinctual desires, their inability to understand risk and statistics, herded like sheep through pens of craps tables, searching for the big break that will put the jewelry from the mall windows in their hands. There's a difference between opportunity and opportunism, Vegas is all about the second. I guess I believe the aim of society should be to minimise the latter without compromising the former, here I see that I may be in the minority. The people seem to genuinely enjoy lusting after things just outside their reach; they seem to take perverse pleasure in losing it all while chasing luck; they embrace their position in this strange game, the only winning strategy is not to play.
I need reality, I need to get out, the next day's plane is delayed and the claustrophobia builds as I feel more and more like a pawn in some black comedy. At last we finally leave the ground. I've escaped.
As I write this a few days have passed since the trip. Although the sleep and healthier food have cured any remnants of the chaos my body was feeling, a little part of my head is still uneasy. I saw a stretch limousine on the way to work and a part of me shuddered. The few days in Vegas took me to the end of that road, and I didn't like what was there. I'll continue to party with my friends and watch them build their material fantasies, but now I know they're not for me. Vegas showed me that real wealth is not physical, and I never planned that either.
(Thanks Adam and Jacob for making me come — you guys are awesome)