the nothing whatever...

Viva Las Vegas

Picture a city built on the back of debauchery and misappropriation: habitual drinking, compulsive gambling, lavish overindulgence and unashamed self-gratification. Then picture the amount of money changing hands when feeding the compulsions and fulfilling all these unique and perverted desires for utter hedonistic bliss. Then, finally, with this money, picture what the city could do to eradicate the seedy nature that always seems to sit in the sidecar of these enterprises, and instead make itself something that will attract gamblers and non-gamblers, drinkers and non-drinkers, the youth and the elderly, families and couples and singles and everything in between. Think of what it could do to sweep the reality of its underpinning beneath a dazzling and colorful, and, by all respects, a magnificent rug.

If I were to be honest I would say that before I went, Vegas had intrigued me, but it had in no way appealed to me. I would imagine that at least for some of you, this feeling is probably understandable. We have been to casino’s before, The Star, Crown, Jupiter’s, and none of them have really offered enough to make us feel as though they were giving back something more than just the mask of an ulterior motive, something that may in some way justify what they were so heartlessly taking away. Exploitation requires a lot of scrubbing to become clean of, and for most of these places, it hangs in the air like the cigarette smoke of an 82 year old grandmother slapping her pension away. To detach ourselves from the notion that casinos are mostly a recluse for those weak in constitution and just places where hard-earned money goes to die requires a more absorbing distraction than four big screens playing different codes of football and a pretty looking fountain in the corner. And to say that Vegas is able to distract is an understatement.

During our time there, we only managed to explore a small fraction of the 5-mile strip, with each establishment being an attraction in itself, having its own themes, features and character. The Venetian, where the US Youltens were staying, has a river that is wide enough to paddle a Gondola down, evident in the fact that you can pay for a Gondola ride that runs through the heart of the casino (I am not exactly sure of the route because we did not ride it). It also has a collection of gourmet restaurants in its own version of St. Marks square, and has a roof that is painted with clouds and a bright blue sky that almost (not quite, but almost) equates to being outside. Outside, though, you look across at the Vegas strip and see a sample of ancient Rome in “Caesar’s Palace”, a miniature Eiffel Tower in “Paris”, a string of taxicabs winding their way around a roller-coaster track above the roof of “New York New York”, and, if you glance over at the right time, you will see giant jets of water shooting unnaturally high into the air as the “The Bellagio” goes through its spectacular half-hourly ritual. With so many things happening at once the place doesn’t even give you a chance to sit and reflect on the funding of these man made marvels, it succeeds, your moral self becomes completely incapacitated by awe.

But what about the people who are attracted to the impurity beneath its surface? You would think that for every family of five you would be able to point our five drunks or five fights or five drug dealers or five prostitutes, but that side of Vegas (whilst being attainable if you are looking in the right place) is remarkably well hidden. Uncle Mike cleared it up for me when he explained that there is a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to policing the strip…“It’s quite simple, if you do anything wrong, they will just shoot you.” That would do it.

And I guess it solves the drunken lout and drugged-up hoon problem as well, as I only really remember a few specific instances where it was blatantly obvious that the lower tiers of society were also walking among us. One was when a man was being evicted from a casino at around 10am, swearing and carrying on and threatening to kill the security guard while we dodged the scene and tried to find a nice place for breakfast, and the other was when we were eating lunch on the balcony of a Mexican restaurant. A tweaker sitting quietly by himself saw something or someone he didn’t like on the strip, and he just began screaming indecipherable taunts at the top of his lungs, the wails and grunts of a man in a mentally questionable condition. The employees of the restaurant quickly approached him, and the next thing we knew he was being lead out by security with a completely vacant expression on his face having gone back into his state of disturbed silence. Just another lost soul.

There were a few other signs that its seedy underbelly was still present, if only in dribs and drabs. The street was often littered with “business cards”, pictures of women in pornographic poses beneath the name “Desiree” or “Ashanti”, along with the number of the agency that they work for, and after a certain time of night it would become very easy to find ourselves seated at bar alongside several working women. As Nic, Mike and I were chatting away at about 1am on our first night in Vegas, just behind us I heard a man swearing viciously at a sublimely dressed Asian girl, while she smiled very sheepishly at the people looking on with concern, forcing herself to half ignore him and puffing away on her cigarette. He stormed off, still dousing her in lewd and demeaning profanity, while a few of us surrounding patrons raised our eyebrows at each other before getting back to being drunk and losing our money. I initially just dismissed it as a couple going through a few difficulties, but with her obviously meticulous obsession with appearance and his flamboyant and dated Hawaiian shirt, grubby white singlet, and gargantuan head (seriously, the guy looked like Jaws from James Bond), the two were so completely incompatible that I eventually settled that she has to be a working girl, and he a dissatisfied customer (or perhaps somebody who could not even bargain his way into getting some action).

It wasn’t until later that night when we were wandering our way back towards the “Quad” (the casino we were calling home) that it all fell into place. Jaws and his big stupid head were standing by the side of the footpath and glancing around a little suspiciously, and as Nic and I walked past hand-in-hand, he mumbled to me half-audibly, “interested in some girls tonight bro, they’re beautiful girls?” I didn’t bother validating his question with a response, but it gave me a cold shudder to think what would be happening to that girl at the hands of this hideous human when there isn’t a casino full of raised eyebrows to stop his rage from escalating. I also remembered the humiliation on her face, not at all in keeping with somebody who approaches sex as a business. It still pains me to think about it.

But, aside from the people that mainly come out during the cloak of night, Vegas might as well be an amusement park where the entry fee is how much you are willing to gamble. Nic and I found that our roulette “system” was far more effective at staving off the inevitable victory of the house than it was feeding our money to the machines, and the longer you can hold out, the better off you are, as waitresses come around selling you one dollar drinks as long as you are gambling (they are actually free, but you have to tip the waitress, so the word “tip” is really just an adjustment in terminology). We went on the taxicab roller-coaster that spouts out the top of the “New York New York” casino, and it was the best one I have ever been on. I was deprived of amusement parks when I was younger, and as is sometimes the case, childhood deprivation manifests into an adulthood obsession.

We had a few fantastic meals at restaurants I cannot quite remember the names of, but who’s food was unforgettable. Paul’s birthday (Auntie Bindi’s brother) was on the second or third night we were there, and it entailed duck-liver mousse and lobster fettuccine and garlic clams and seafood risotto…happy birthday to Paul! And I thought backpacking was going to be tough.

I read back over what I have just written and I realize that, once again, I have tried to sell the wall by writing about its cracks, which is something that I tend to do. So I am going to end this section by telling you exactly what I think, and just remember that this endorsement is not coming from a gambler, it is coming from somebody who was approaching it very apprehensively. Vegas is a place that must been seen and experienced at least once, by everyone, if only for a few days, as what you end up finding is that it is not just a place for the nurturing of addictions, it is a city that is addictive in itself.

Vegas gets a Bendorsment.