Growing up along the Jersey Shore, visits to Atlantic City peppered otherwise monotonous weekends of childhood routine. Usually, we were dragged there in support of my sister. Her instruction at ‘A Touch Of Dance’ had exposed some talent within her and she had been chosen for the dance team. Our trips mostly featured us cramped into auditorium seats, passing tedious hours watching stage moms shellack hairstyles onto their progeny. At least we were free of actual chores for the day, and, as a makeshift dressing room/staging area, the light was usually good enough for me to read through the sadder performances.
Occasionally we would take a trip down the boardwalk to the cruise ship – shaped shopping palace, Ocean One. We would step out onto the boardwalk in the late afternoon sun, blinding after so long in the indoor half-light. The glittering ocean and salty air were a relief from the sea of sequins and manufactured chill inside the convention center. We would blow our pocket money on mood rings or candy, but I knew the real fun was being had by adults, and that fun was happening in the casinos.
With age, I revisited Atlantic City. I descended the escalator into a pasture of slot machines. In row after row, people stood silently popping coins into the machines. These people, the overwhelming majority in the senior set, were alone. A vast number were aided by some apparatus, be it a wheelchair, walker, or oxygen tank. The mechanical bells and buzzers of the machines were garish intrusions on the dour spectacle. Far from a place of dreams, this was a temple of desperation. I decided then that casinos were cheerless places, causes too lost to even be saved by free booze. Though many I have known, even respected, have talked fondly of Vegas, I never saw the allure of the shimmering city in the desert.
The El Cortez is situated on Fremont Street, the original downtown of Vegas. Its decor hovers somewhere between vintage charm and run-down dive, the type of rough around the edges I tend to look for in an establishment. It felt fun, like the edgy Vegas from the movies.
Nothing wears away at wonder like physical labor, and after a few trips trudging our belongings back and forth across the casino floor, my earlier impression was reaffirmed. Each pass revealed the casino’s patrons to be far removed from the vacationers and newlyweds featured in the tourist bureau advertisements. These people were mostly elderly, shabbily dressed, and alone. Coming off a night of sleeping in a car, I doubt I looked much better, but that wasn’t really what made them sad. Vegas has always sold the illusion that anything can happen there. Here was a room full of people, up for midday gambling, and yet, there was no energy, no conversation. Signs boasting cheap margaritas did their best to tempt, but I don’t drink around people preoccupied with phones and I’m old enough to have added smoke-permeated hair to my list of annoyances.
Most of the day was taken up by divesting ourselves of Maus, making sacrifices to the garbage can, re-packing and schlepping all of our things through the casino and up the stairs on several trips. It had previously been made clear that the bellboy was not one to give up his cart, and being in the oldest section of the historic hotel, the owners must have decided to keep history alive and not provide an elevator during any one of their multiple expansions or renovations. The fourth trip up the stairs was assuredly the most authentic historical experience I’ve ever had, as far as stairs and luggage go. After all the rigamarole, we celebrated the milestone of doing away with Maus with a late lunch at Therapy down the street from our hotel.
Returning a rental car three days past due went about as well as could be expected. My wallet was assaulted by the most tolerant customer service rep I have ever encountered, who did her best to make the violation feel less like getting lost in a frat dungeon and more like overstaying a sloppy company Christmas party. We exited an hour later, feeling 5,000 pounds lighter. In an effort to reward my patience through the ordeal, J threatened to treat me to the superlative stylings of a gratuitously-promoted comedy/magician. No good deed goes unpunished.
We headed to the fittingly-named Therapy for some solid sandwiches and beer, then explored the area for a bit. Vegas is a town with a sense of humor. Marquees are outfitted with snarky messages. Smart murals are prominently displayed. Vintage signs are repurposed as street art. People walk around wearing whatever the hell they want.
We came upon a two-story praying mantis as it was beginning its nightly show of rhythmic pyrotechnics set to music. The monstrous sculpture had been set atop a truck for easier transport. An attached placard affirmed it was street legal. Six-foot flames spurted from its antennae in a display both pointless and undeniably awesome.
I had been itching to see Blade Runner 2049 since the first teaser, and being a big fan of the Dick, Philip K. I was all about some dystopian detective action. After begging and pleading with a defiantly napping Y to get the hell up already in the gentlest fashion my inner-14-year-old self could muster without my voice cracking, we were off on a slow stroll through Vegas. We walked past drive-through wedding chapels and parts of town that hadn’t had a bath since soap jingles were de rigeur. The film was a worthy successor to the original, and our walk home was decidedly more animated.
Though exhausted, I could hear the excitement in J’s voice as he pleaded for me to rise from the dead in time for the night’s last showing of Blade Runner 2049. The walk’s many spectacles served to straighten me from my indulgent crankiness at having been woken. The avenue was lined with wedding chapels, whose facades seemed commissioned by the same architecture firm responsible for the prolific design of every Taco Bell. A pawn shop, minutes from opening, had a hungry line of patrons already waiting at its bullet-proof night window. The landscape was peppered with bail bond emporiums, cigar shops, and a dilapidated old strip club. We turned right at the man in the marijuana leaf-print suit and saw a very decent movie.
We began the day with lunch at plant-based restaurant, Vegenation. I’m not typically one for meat substitutes (preferring food that’s secure in what it is), yet opted for the chicken pot pie gnocchi. The tofu “chicken” and cashew “cream” was as rich as the original, but without all the heaviness that comes from a cream stew. A morning news story had reported on a calf which had escaped from a Brooklyn slaughterhouse. While gruesome, the circumstances were laughably ridiculous, as the calf had made its way to Prospect Park where it knocked over a toddler. As we relished a cruelty-free meal I mused, “Why aren’t we cultivating more cashews instead of cows?”
The next day was largely spent catching up on writing and treating ourselves to the food, sight, and sounds of the city. Spacing the day out with bursts of writing, we had an excellent lunch at Vegenation, a circuit of the Fremont Experience, a birthday postcard for my nephew and dinner at Evel Pie, a Knieval-themed dive bar and pizza joint. As the crowds, and with them, the amateurs mounted, we were happy to walk back to the hotel.
The Fremont Experience is a walkway connecting casinos, gift shops, and free-standing pagodas in a covered outdoor mall. A Michael Jackson impersonator and a man in a banana hammock had claimed corners on which to busk. Situated between them was a woman in a habit and pasties, intensely focused on her phone in seeming ignorance of her nudity. Heavy equipment could be seen demolishing a building from behind scaffolding touting a forthcoming new Vegas. Zip-liners whizzed past, over it all. Not being in the market for a rhinestone phone case, personalized poker chip, hair extensions, or a t-shirt bearing the words “Deez Nuts” (which is apparently still a thing here), the pageantry was largely lost on me. Shop girls barking two for one specials at the oxygen bar could not lure me. I frugally preferred to just breathe. Signs at Heartattack Grill promoted their anyone over 380 pounds eats free special, and we boosted our egos on the industrial scale outside, which was set 30 pounds under in apparent fear of too many diners being able to take advantage of the offer.
The next day, we grabbed food at EAT, where I had a grilled cheese that brought me back to childhood lunches with my Grandad and Father at a deli long since closed. It was all types of fuzzies to share with Y, who was graceful as ever in accommodating the sudden outbursts I am prone to during meals. And at any other time. We had every intention of continuing the rhythm of the previous day, but we crashed out hard, waking up as night was falling. We got ready and rode an Uber to the Strip, starting off at the Bellagio as per my Father’s advice, to watch its famous fountain. We were not disappointed, and the otherworldly neon sea of the Vegas Strip proved a stranger backdrop than my wildest imagination.
We popped a bottle of Schramsburg Blanc de Noir, hoping to dull ourselves before embarking on the sensory overload of The Strip. At the Bellagio, the fountain show was not only impressive, but proved I was not above shoving pushy old ladies wielding their fleshless shoulders as bony weapons. Each behemoth resort was a city unto itself, dwarfing the populace of many of the actual cities we had recently passed through. The Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe at Paris were realistic enough to fool the French tourism officials commenting on my Instagram. The world’s largest ferris wheel, the High Roller, spun cars high above, each with its own bar and casino games. Being unaware of the existence of moderation, the streets were decorated with large-scale models of demons, witches, and a Krampus-toting child, in honor of impending Halloween.
I am amazed at the ability of humanity to create all of this beauty strictly for its own purpose. Las Vegas is modern-day El Dorado, a self-aware symbol of wealth and luxury. A bizarre microcosm of simulacra, bedecked in crystal, marble, and brass. It’s all so beautiful, but no inch of it was ever done with any purpose or definition other than grandeur for its own sake. The Las Vegas strip memorializes the ephemeral. It’s a hollow place, and an absolutely immense one at that. We walked a length of it, poking into the larger casinos, finding sad short stories around every corner.
The hotels and casinos are as large as airport terminals, smelling impossibly good in an inversion of the comfortable stale cigarette aroma that coated the walls of our relic of a hotel. These are not actual places so much as they are experiences; a speedy and constant pounding on the pleasure centers of the brain. A city based on greed and masturbation, meta and otherwise, yet it hums with all the vibrancy of any other major population center.
We entered Cesar’s Palace, again on my father’s recommendation, to see the original Craps pit where the Rat Pack played. Not only did we manage to get lost in the unimaginably huge campus, but we discovered the craps pit, like much of old Vegas, had been done away with. The lure of adult slurpees proved too much for me, and we soon found ourselves in possession of frozen Pina Coladas.
Caesar’s Palace disappointed in our search for old-school craps tables, but over-exceeded every other expectation. Tourists pushed past marble friezes eight feet high, oblivious to their worth. Crystal chandeliers radiated out over the gambling tables. Designer Italian shops sit amongst fake Italian eateries under a blue sky fresco. Statues of Triton, Poseidon, and pegasi hold (food) court at the moderately named Fountain of the Gods. All roads lead back in on the casino floor. Even as I was aware of the carefully manufactured attempts to take every possible cent, I was too awed by the system’s genius execution to be bothered by the tricks.
On our exploration of Las Vegas Boulevard, characters were in no short supply. We saw a heavily muscled, self-proclaimed ex-Shiite Christian, bearing a 3/4 scale wooden cross on his thigh and shoulder, bellowing into a megaphone while his accompanying drummer blasted away. Minutes later, a Captain Spock look-alike stood placidly observing the people swarming around him. There were endless crowds heading in every direction, with homeless napping or investigating garbage cans in the dark parts untouched by the pervasive light, only a few feet away from the swollen crowds. The neon wonderland was as all-encompassing as advertised, and we eventually sought a quiet harbor to dull our senses, sharing knowing moments with our bartender, an energetic woman about a decade older than us, who had no time for her co-workers’ bullshit.
We toyed with the idea of taking one of the Venetian’s unattended gondolas for a joyride before moving on to Circus Circus. As we approached, it became clear the resort had seen better days. Aside from its marquee clown being plucked from an 80’s horror movie, it’s inherently creepy to walk into a place filled with kids at 11pm. The carnival theme had clearly been grand once, when Eiffel Towers and the canals of Venice weren’t de riguer. Half the tables were covered in tarps, like an amusement park shuttered for the winter. A young girl sat on a bench to the side, watching over her younger siblings. The entire brood was slumped over, visibly exhausted, looking on as their parents continued to pump money into slot machines. The entire situation left me uneasy, knowing any interjection on the behalf of the kids would only come back on them.
At Circus Circus, we witnessed a small girl crying, being watched by her older 3 siblings, all under the age of 9. Mom and Dad were languidly hitting the slots a few feet away, rocking in their chairs, casting a psychic shadow on their children, some using the small clutch of stuffed animals and other prizes as pillows. Having reached a sort of overload at this point, we walked to the Peppermill, a non-stop diner, on a friend’s recommendation for a small meal and a nightcap. Y elected the Grasshopper as her mood enhancer, while I went for the altogether more butch Mai Tai. We realized it was past midnight, so it was away to bed with we curmudgeonly pumpkins, wincing in the Strip’s neon assault.
We stopped for a late bite at the Peppermill. The place harkens back to a time that never was, a 50’s style diner, but one with cocktail servers circling the room in floor-length gowns and pearls. Like much of Vegas, it is odd and oversaturated, though not unenjoyable. A grasshopper, the mint-chocolate chip smoothie of the cocktail world, seemed an appropriate vehicle for drinking my feelings. I can understand the appeal of Vegas, but it’s not for me. It is somehow both grimy and antiseptic in all the wrong ways. We enjoyed a strange meal and headed back across town, glad to be free of The Strip’s simulated amusements.
A few short hours in the strip left a large impression. Seeing the merciless and soulless glow of the heart of Las Vegas was both a pilgrimage for an acolyte of the Good Doctor Hunter S. Thompson and the perfect reminder of the dark side of the civilized world. After our walk through the Strip, I felt dazed and impotent, more brutalized than the raw beauty of Gran Escalante had left me. The city pulsed with the thousands of surrenders to base nature like so many lab rats foregoing food for pleasure.
I recalled the traveling couple we gave a jump to in Hot Springs, and how excited the husband had been for the Grand Canyon, and the almost audible eye-roll of the wife, desperately eager to get to Las Vegas. While relationships are built on compromise, humanity’s already one-sided relationship with itself and its planet of origin may not be able to ultimately stand the strain of such diametric opposition. I was glad to leave the next day for the peace and silence of the desert, which seemed to make that much more sense.