I carried a collared shirt for our entire and slow journey across America. It sat, badly wrinkled and stuffed into the recesses of my motorcycle luggage, whilst we camped and cavorted across the wild paddies and town home streets of this land. Never, not once, did I wear this shirt. But now, on the final leg of this trans-state travelodium, I stand naked, 29 stories above Las Vegas Boulevard and try to resurrect the crumpled mess. Never mind the hazards of ironing naked, my Vegas travails strike deeper to the heart.
There is something intrinsically tragic about this city of bawdy excess and wasted cash. Is it capitalism’s last great hurrah or lasting insult. Money pours in pipes from the casino floors down into collecting basins. Squandered in hopes that you are somehow different than all the poor desperate gambling sops that came before. The ones whose money was wasted too and then gathered up in great empty spectacles of light and showmanship and pretense to tower over this empty city.
Las Vegas is a soulless place. Sure it is heartless, this we all know. Yes of course it will eat you up and spit you out penniless and seething with guilt and remorse. It is not a few who have visited this city with sparkling neon reflecting in their hopeful eyes only to slink out soul weary and deflated.
But I am talking about something else. The deep down beating heart of place. A living city has history, character, families are born and raised into generations until they scratch their firm mark upon the landscape and history of a place. People, places and things exist within a history and lineage. The character of a place is built slowly by hard efforts and then the stories of those efforts. Las Vegas is a land of temporary towers razed as greedily as they are born and ringed by an ever expanding carpet of one story shops and desert brown subdivisions. It is a land where greed, sex, gambling and excess are celebrated, what choice does it have. But at its core, as I am about to discover, is an emptiness deeper than the towers are tall.
We tromp through endless carpeted rooms filled with noise, smoke, coins and poorly mmpatterned carpets. Unless you are one who enjoys dropping coins in a slot with a cold cigarette dripping from your brown lips in hopes of victory there is nothing here for you. These people must be punch drunk with the promise of Donald Trump’s Tower to throw their money eagerly into the maws of tirants who can’t build the coffers fast enough to collect it. All around us lurk the still black, crane encrusted skeletons of next months testament to gambling profit. Punch drunk with faith in luck and a divine providence that will tender them magically successful in a game of chance that is rigged for a higher goal. Like flies who see others hopelessly stuck to the paper but land anyway.
Samantha and I snuggle into a fireside lounge which in Vegas consists of a cauldron of blue flame and bubbling liquid ringed by blood red sofas. Vegas is a land of hustlers, lured like gold diggers to the mines, and one precedes to hustle us on overpriced but generously liqoured drinks. I don’t care. Vegas exhausts me. It is a place to arrive rich or pretend rich for as long as the funds allow. And the pirates of neonville gladly lap up our desperate efforts. Everything about this town is unreal, pretend or a sham.
We stumble upon a new hotel that had for its theme, rather than the circus of our hotel, a story book decor. As is true to form no expense was spared. Great hanging lamps, in exotic purples and rich oranges, rose and fell like jellyfish in a hall. The stairs sweeping down each side to deliver you onto the shores of a lake filled with glowing balls floating in mist and ending in a lip of water that has no shore. Just beyond its edge a Brilliant waterfall cascades down white flagstones and plunges into the same mysterious depths as the lake shore. High off to one side another narrow waterfall cascades down mock rocks evoking some kind of fairy tale wonderland. Inside huge lamps and chandeliers hang in great entryways. We pad on red carpets woven with giant butterflies down endless halls. Reds oranges and brilliant, sparkling, creamy whites dance everywhere. Rhinestone encrusted red butterfly’s hang high above our heads as a cool artificial breeze blows through the halls. Then we enter a grand atrium piled high with exotic plants. Wide leaved banana plants hang over groves of ferns which to our surprise are real. And that’s part of Las Vegas, perhaps a part of the Disneyesque American experience in general, it’s hard to separate the real from the facade.
We find a cafeteria style asian restaurant and order out of the bins. It’s late and they are closing. Our server is an old asian man with a wise grin. He winks at us as he fills our styrofoam. I notice he’s adding lots of things we didn’t order and try to protest. He shushes me and winks again, that all knowing smile across his face. It seems he knows something we don’t, something ethereal expressed in piles of broccoli chicken and spring rolls. He rings me up for just what we ordered and as we feast I am touched by this man’s spirit and generosity. It is the human element that prevails. It is good people, regardless of place, that make this world wonderful.
On our return to the hotel there is some kind of show going on. Scantily clad pirates swing from the rigging of a huge ship, careened in a lagoon. Explosions send smoke wafting across the boulevard. A crowd fills the sidewalk. High above, palm trees swing in the breeze and high above that the words “Mandalay Bay” gleam from the top of the building. I can’t help but be impressed by it all but also a little overwhelmed and that mysterious other feeling that seems to set me apart from the crowds. A feeling of suspicion, as if someone just handed me a counterfeit bill. This place makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I get the feeling it’s all one big hustle and I start to think of our home in the Caribbean. Maybe it’s the palm trees and the square rigger but suddenly I am homesick for reality.
We arrived with bushy tails and dreams of glamour and riches and now we are skulking back to our room trying to figure out what all the fuss is about? Las Vegas makes me feel like a jaded, grumpy old man. Perhaps it’s just not for us. We have created our whole lives in the interest of things other than money. Travel, adventure, work that is fun everyday and a long off season in which we lose income but gain freedom. Perhaps to really enjoy Las Vegas you have to really enjoy money for the sake of money. You have to be awed by wealth and spectacle. You have to want to spend hours in line to club with celebrities and sip $20 cocktails. Or perhaps you’re attracted by “sin city’s” sexy and seedy underbelly. Or perhaps you are addicted to gambling and the allure of free money, luck and chance. I don’t know maybe I don’t watch enough television to get it. I have the feeling that there is incredible fun to be had but I just never crack the code. I feel like Scrooge the day before Christmas, only Christmas day I have no revelations just a hangover and an empty wallet. I’m leaving las Vegas to those truly equipped to enjoy it. I dont judge, I would even go back again. But the natural gardens of the silent desert all around attract me more than the fake lagoons of the Venetian and Mandalay Bay’s plastic pirate ship.