Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Learning in Las Vegas

Let’s just say I have a peculiar relationship with Las Vegas. My father was a real estate dealer there for most of his life. And when I visit his widow, one block over from Hazard Street, it was never to hit the casinos, but to catch up with family news. Besides, when I was an eighteen-year-old sailor at the Pensacola Naval Air Station, I bet two bucks on a greyhound which had cardiac arrest half way around the track. It seemed an omen, especially since my brother was a race track tout in Detroit. I was not into gambling. At all.

On the other hand, I’m a professional cheapskate unable to resist bargains. So last week in San Francisco, when I read in U.S.A. Today that the spanking new 4,000 room Excalibur Hotel was eager to rent one of them to me for $28, I immediately called up my favorite cheapie, Southwest Airlines (they brag that they feed you no lunch—only peanuts—so they can fly you for peanuts) to see how much airfare would come to. Well, hubs being what they are in the airline business these days, I had to take two $20 legs, Oakland to Phoenix, Phoenix to Vegas, with a lot of down time—leaving the East Bay at 7:00 a.m. and not getting in Tinsel Town until noon. But I have English professor friends in Phoenix to schmooze with, and my buddy Jake has a house in Alameda ten minutes from Oakland International, and Hertz would let me drop off my $79 a week Escort booked out of San Francisco airport in Oakland: so I decided to get to Vegas the cheap but hard (time wise) way.

My step-mother met me at McCarran International Airport, after which the hard part started. We circled the humungous territory surrounding the Excalibur squinting to find out where you registered. The signs are dinky and inconclusive so we ended up in a taxicab line with a hacker who majored in Nasty honking and giving us lost sheep the finger. I told her to park while I went on safari to see if I could find a registration desk. Once inside this cavernous Arthurian Theme Park (I have never seen so many kitschy pseudo-medieval arty facts in one place in my life), it was easy enough to find Tower One where I picked up my Visa-confirmed late arrival room. On the twenty-sixth floor, the better to take photos from. (It rises, in four corner towers to twenty-eight stories.) 

Walking through the Casino to get to Tower Two is not as easy as it sounds. You always seem to be veering off onto some prearranged diversionary path—to poker, or blackjack, or a hundred different kinds of slot machines, some of them big enough to hide behind from an attacking Sherman tank. Once I got my driver to find the proper entrance, there was the problem of the hernia level luggage. Curbside appeared to be a fourteen mile hike from the elevators. And it took a good fifteen minutes for a bell boy to show up with a cart to make a portage to the bank of elevators.

The rooms are huge, and the view was gorgeous, funky enough to send architectural guru Robert Venturi into another learning from Las Vegas frenzy. But the TV had no magic wand, and you could go blind and dumb trying to figure which tiny buttons to push on the bottom corner of the set to change stations. (Heh, they don’t want you watching the telly until your bod is exhausted and your wallet likewise; they want you downstairs—betting on something, anything, so long as your income is churning…) My step-mother had already eaten, so our plan to file through the buffet line ran into the absurdity of her paying the set fee of $5.95 for a mere cup of coffee. 

We wandered over to the Sherwood Forest café, where I had a so-so beef au jus and she had a knockout macadamia nut pie. The waiters and waitresses are all decked out in medieval gear, except for a few leggy wenches in peek-a-boo array. Their looks made up for the mediocre beef. The real piece de no resistance, I’m told, is the twice-an-evening medieval theme dinner, complete with two knights jousting at each other on honest-to-god horses. For $24.95. No extra charges to hold the horses.

I dozed off early, after my hard, day-long transportation slog, awakening at two a.m. ready for some kind of action. Food, for a start. I decided to test the twenty-four room service. My wee hours continental breakfast took an hour to arrive (the order taker had promised fifteen minutes), and the “hottle” of coffee was two polystyrene cups. Tacky. The whole service was plasticated so I had to put my trusty ceramic mug I use to counter the immense plastification of the universe into service. The recession has hit the amenities in the hotel as they try to trim costs in an over elegantly appointed room.

I decided to buy some film and shoot a roll or two of a casino at four o’clock in the morning. It was better than betting. Studs Terkel would have gone ballistic. I started shooting the breeze with grim-visaged losers, bitterly unwilling to give up as they dug themselves deeper and deeper into a fiscal hole. ATM machines seemingly plugged into every network in the Western Hemisphere sat there smugly, waiting to be tapped, and tapped again. Lady Guineveres with little Change carts rolled around breaking big bills into littler coins. 

And then what at first looked like a S.W.A.T. team turned out to be the “hard count” crew, dumping huge pails of the coins they had drained from the slots into security wagons. “Soft count” their boss explained to me is what they call the paper money pickup. A genial black guy from Mississippi was carefully polishing each of the glass surfaces of the machines so they’d sparkle aplenty when the bettors now sleeping took another early morning go at it.

It was astonishing to learn from how many different places in the United States the casino crew came. And of all ages, and dispositions, it would seem. A real microcosm of American Dreamers, passively hoping they’d strike it richer this time. Some of the wide-awakes come there three or four times a year. Never discouraged by the fact that they come out behind mostly. I had a particularly tasty palaver with some ex-Navy men and their wives hailing from Oklahoma. There’s something about the half-deserted, funereally quiet casino floor at five in the a.m. that triggers high quality nostalgia wallows. Some of these early risers, or never sleepers, had been awakened for charter flights back home at ungodly hours.

It was easier to check out than to check in. High tech checkouts take nanoseconds. And before you could say “Excalibur is bigger than the Mirage, nyanyanyanyana” my step-mother was whirling me out to McCarran, the new terminal a stunning piece of architecture (the oldie, on the opposite side of the landing field and now used only for charters and private planes was just so-so looking). We went out early to beat the crowd, and I was early enough to get my favorite maximum legroom seat 26C on the Boeing 757 to Minneapolis where I was scheduled to connect with Flight 8 to Philly. Northwest cancelled that flight, and I talked them into putting me up at the Comfort Inn 5 minutes from MSP. Since I was using my presenile pack of eight tickets good for anywhere in the Lower Forty-Eight for $92 a pop (two tickets to Alaska and Hawaii), Northwest was being generous when I argued I didn’t want to be driving a rented car to my son’s house in St. Paul at one a.m.

So it was an instructive pit stop to see how the gambling half lives. Usually, when I go to Las Vegas, it’s to visit and hoover the museums and galleries—or take in a trade show as I did on the last trip when I visited COMDEX, the big electronics fair. The Friday editions of both dailies, the Sun and Review Journal, tout in useable detail Vegas’ growing non-gambling side. Their New Big Shtick to become a family destination resort implies that they have to stimulate the growth of the lively arts beyond Wayne Newton. Each time I come back it seems they’re closer to that ideal they’ve set themselves. UNLV, believe it or not, is much much more than a crackerjack basketball team surrounded by drooling sycophant student rooters. 

It has a credible art gallery and history museum. There is another complex of cultural institutions (local history, contemporary art, crafts sales) in Lorenzo Park, a sweet little urban space ten minutes by car from the gritty Strip. And the Clark County Public Library always surprises me more than pleasantly with the quality of its ad hoc displays: last time it was a fine photographic exhibition of local jazz performers. There’s even a gambling museum, making global lemonade out of their local lemons. And don’t fail to save a half-day to drive out to Henderson for the Clark County Historical Museum. It’s a multifaceted affair that gives you a lively sense of how they carved this little oasis of Greenbacks out of the saline, sandy desert. A neat day trip is to Hoover Dam and Lake Mead.

I never fail to get euphoric when I walk the top of the grand Deco Wall that is the Hoover. So keep an eye peeled for those Vegas fire sale bargains—both airline and hotel. And strike when the fare is peanuts and the hotel room is just as cheap. (There’s an up tourist side to every downer of a recession.) America West’s bold price plummeting is what started me thinking of popping over to Vegas from San Francisco. 

Usually I take the train or bus, and that’s fifteen hours by bus and just a little better by railroad. So it’s a joy to my backside when Herb Kelleher and his happy Southwest Airline gnomes start whirling you over to LV on their el cheapo flight. In the tradition of each Youth Hosteller doing part of the house work, Southwesters pitch in patiently as the crew tries to stuff their planes with paying customers. It’s a kick in Las Vegas, up to its ears in Americana, to deal with the real daily lives of its permanent inhabitants; rather than the fantasy lives of the transients.

But all is not Eden in Glitz City. The fortyish driver of our stretch limo back to McCarran (after a morning of taking care of family legal matters) confessed that after three years in the fast Vegas lane she was returning with her thirteen-year-old daughter to the Boise she grew up in. “The pace gets to you after a while. It’s hard keeping a teenage daughter straight with all the distractions and diversions of this town that never sleeps.” With that constant turnover of population and steady turmoil of soul, it’s not easy to create a genuine community out in the desert. 

But they can, if they try harder. And they have. The next time you lose really bad, try the other Vegas. You’ll be surprised at how humane and grown up it has become. Unlike its riskier half, the normal Vegas is just a kind of small Mid-western town with fresh air to breathe and plenty of space for the kids to play. Try the hidden half of Vegas. You’ll love it, and leave it with a better sense of what Atlantic City could become if the casino people there paid more attention to their heritage and less to their very, very short-term bottom lines.

From Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, October 31, 1990

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