As the self-proclaimed expert on all things Southern California, I would like to practice an age-old technique of Hollywood and take ownership of something that is not even remotely ours: Vegas, baby!
But it is hard to own an illusion.
On a recent convention trip to Vegas, I marveled at how the artificial atmosphere piped into the casinos makes it suddenly not seem obscenely grotesque that an 8 oz. steak can cost $280. Or, for that matter, that a bunch of guys in blue paint can get $250 a ticket for a show, when we used to do that for free in the dorms.
Sin City is where the American Dream has been egregiously mutated from “hard work can lead to prosperity and success” to “somebody has to win, so why not me?”
Sometimes Vegas even offers its own warnings about itself: the startling image of immense opulence placed side by side with the impact crater of a fall from grace.
I saw this firsthand when I passed by the little unclaimed part of the strip that houses the crappy souvenir shops, between the themed monstrosities, and saw a familiar face in a small sidewalk storefront window. Is that? Could it be? A barker confirmed that yes, that actually is THE Pete Rose, the greatest hitter in baseball history, and you can go inside and buy his autograph right now while he ignores you and chomps on a Subway sandwich. So I did, of course.
Vegas always seems like such a great idea before going; just the mention of it makes people yell the name inappropriately loud, move ineptly to some sort of inner hip-hop beat, and quote lines from the Vegas commercials like they are threats.
When the time rolls around to leave this giant adult amusement park, however, your whole being feels inundated with a rancid smoky smell that desperately needs to be laundered before setting foot in the house; once again, sucked in by an alluring, empty promise.
Vegas makes me want to shake the shoulders of the chain-smoking couple from Kansas, he in his cargo shorts and fanny pack and she in her perm and parachute pants, and shout, “How do you think they can afford to have beautiful green golf courses in the middle of a desert that even nuclear testing in the 60’s avoided? Think for just a second before you slip your credit card into that machine!”
But as I am shouting, you can almost see the thought bubbles rising above their heads saying, “Somebody has to win. Why not me?”
Three in the morning, long after the last turn around the convention floor had ended, and the last speaker had stepped down from the podium thinking to himself, “Yeah, nailed it!” I found myself in the bar. Shocking, I know.
I was amazed at how many ridiculously pretty young women were everywhere. It was like a coed mirage. At 3 a.m. Flirting with guys, getting them to buy them drinks. How could they afford to be there? I know it was Spring Break, but still. When I was in college, I had to take up a collection just to buy a Big Mac as a treat on a date.
I asked my barber about those women and he said they were hookers. I said, “But no, they were pretty young girls trying to work their way through college by dancing at night clubs and . . . ooooohhhhhhh.”
So farewell Las Vegas. It sure is pretty to look at in a weird Blade Runner sort of way. But I do like it better in my rear view mirror. I usually have to wait at least three years to go back. It takes that long to shake the image of seeing Mr. and Mrs. Kansas, still wandering the rows of machines after I have slept and had breakfast, their eyes glazed over with nicotine and defeat.
For the record, I beat the system. I went 43 hours without playing any games. No card tables, no slot machines, no wheels. So for the first time ever, I left there ahead.
Maybe I’ll play next time I go. After all, somebody has to win…