Lost Vegas

sasinfrank Issue: Section:

"i know that i am not going to win. i truly believe i would get more satisfaction out of laying a stack of $5 bills beside a freeway and watching the wind from passing cars disperse them artfully and permanently."

sometimes people tell me about events or opportunities for entertainment here in my hometown. it happens. even a total loser, a pariah dog, gets tossed a bone every once in a great while.

often as not, though, i have to decline.

“i’ll be out of town then,” i will say. and it’s true. i work out of town about 120 days a year, installing and de-installing trade show booths.

the inviter, being polite, will usually ask, “oh. where are you going?”

about 1 in 3 times my answer will be “las vegas.”

that’s when i see it: clear evidence that the las vegas board of tourism has done its job all too well. i see neon lights in the person’s eye. their head tilts as if taking in the full grandeur of the eiffel tower. i can hear the laughter and squeals of victory from the joyous crowds assembled inside their brain.

if it’s someone who doesn’t know me very well, they then say, “wow. that will be fun...” not like they mean it. more like that is what one is supposed to say when one hears the phrase “las vegas.”

“peanut, butter.” “jelly.”

“peace be with you.” “and also with you.”

“las vegas.” “fun.”

truth is, however: i cannot stomach las vegas. even in the rare moments when i am not working, i don’t find anything fun about the place. judging from the desperate, vacant looks on the faces of most of the people i see there, it doesn’t look like they’re actually having any fun, either.

if you stopped them and asked them, though, “are you having fun?” i feel pretty certain they’d look at you in utter confusion, as if to say, “what kind of question is that? it’s vegas, right? of course we’re having fun.”

maybe they are.

maybe i’m just a crank.

first of all, i don’t see how anybody can afford to have fun in las vegas. if i were able to convince myself that any of the shows available for seeing were worth my time, i can’t see spending half a month’s rent on one evening’s entertainment. i was so hungry and stuck once i almost paid $14 for a grilled cheese on the strip. i came to just in time. i pray that i will never be so hungry that i will give $14 for a grilled cheese. unless, of course, it comes with a happy ending or a complimentary bottle of bourbon.

and even if i had money, i don’t gamble. i guess i didn’t get that gene. i lived for months at a hotel casino in puerto rico. never once made a bet. i’m no prude. i just don’t see the point. i might understand how someone would exhilarate at the prospect of winning money, but for me i am certain that the exhilaration will not be mine. i know that i am not going to win. i truly believe i would get more satisfaction out of laying a stack of $5 bills beside a freeway and watching the wind from passing cars disperse them artfully and permanently.

and i don’t equate the level of noise in a place with the level of fun there. there must be a civil ordinance in clark county requiring constant noise from multiple sources. from the second you step off the plane to the second you step back on for the flight home, you are assaulted by noise. slot machines pinging and ringing and roaring. the general hubbub of hundreds of people in cavernous casinos. music piped in at the entrances to the hotels, in the casinos, in the hallways, in the bathrooms and restaurants, even directed at innocents passing by on the sidewalks. you cannot escape it at any hour of the day or night, unless you bury yourself beneath the pillows in your hotel room and refuse to leave. (howard hughes suddenly doesn’t seem so odd or reclusive, now that i think about it.) it wears a body out.

and hand in hand with the noise is the aggressive lighting, which to me is the epitome of waste in the most wasteful place on the planet, which points me to the underlying root of my resentment. the riot of light coming from every angle, nook and cranny is supposed to give the place a vibrant, lively atmosphere, i guess. to me, however, it looks like the spectacular last flare of a dying star.

i guess what annoys me most about las vegas is what worries me most about america at large, namely the Philosophy of More.

in america, when times get tough and the infinite growth economy staggers a bit, historically we have followed a predictable path. we identify the cause of the hiccup or slump and then dedicate our selves and resources to doing MORE of the same on a huger scale. to americans, the problem is not that what we are doing might be wrong, it’s that we are probably just not doing enough of it.

the answer to every economic question always seems to be MORE.

and as a harbinger, i am afraid that las vegas may have MOREd itself to its  final limit.

the fact is, las vegas is a city in the middle of the mojave desert. the meadows that gave the town its name early in the 20th century were meant to sustain a small population of Paiutes, and the occasional travelers moving to albuquerque or los angeles.

but then the americans stole it from mexico, and the Philosophy of MORE became law. the americans diverted the water from the artesian wells, dried up the Las Vegas Wash that ran to the Colorado River, and turned the place briefly into an agricultural center.

then the water ran out.

faced with this reality, those with a stake in the las vegas game could have folded. instead, they initiated a sustained campaign of increasingly ludicrous bluffs. they went for MORE.

the federal government began work on the nearby Hoover Dam (then called the Boulder Dam) in 1930. the thousands of workers imported for the construction (mostly men) needed a place to booze and whore and gamble, so Fremont Street obliged.

when that boom subsided, the town fathers could have said, “well, that was fun while it lasted,” tossed the pair of threes they were holding onto the table and walked away with some dignity. but they kept bluffing.

a couple of choice deals to get highways diverted to their oasis, an influx of mob money through mormon banks, and they were pretending to be flush again. The Flamingo hotel opened in 1946, ushering in another round of MORE.

when that round, which lasted through the intimate dinner theatre epoch of Sinatra and the Rat Pack, began to wane, the only option considered was MORE.

they built a bigger strip south of downtown, this time including convention space for the burgeoning trade show industry. the new complexes now had casinos, restaurants, nightclubs, hotel rooms and places to conduct trade shows all under the same roof. and all just ten minutes away from the new mccarren airport. a traveling businessman could take a taxi from the airfield to his association’s chosen venue, walk in, and never have to leave the premises.

that iteration of MORE worked swimmingly, so they began tearing down the original superstructures to make them even MORE super.

and when that bubble expanded as far as it logically could, the real and most recent version of MORE took hold. steve wynn and like-minded money magicians poured money into a fading strip and made the megacomplexes that loom over las vegas boulevard today. these are the places that trade on the veneer of sin and decadence of the bygone eras, but are composed of the materials of american mall culture. these terrestrial behemoths literally have something for everyone: man, woman or child. there are art galleries, upscale shopping boutiques, rides for the kids, massive venues where no-longer-current pop stars resurrect their glory days or pay the back taxes on their country castles or what-have-you, starting at $175 a seat. and all this in addition to the casinos, standard ephemera and convention spaces.

they have taken care of everything for you. you have absolutely no reason not to have fun.

which is probably why i, for one, am not likely to have any fun at a place like that, even if i could afford it.

but the MORE of it all is what burns me up.

i flew back from vegas last week, and got a good look at lake mead, las vegas’s source of water and the reservoir for the Hoover Dam. i had heard that a tipping point had been reached recently. a string of bad snow years, combined with the fact that the city’s population has been doubling every decade since 1900 has begun to tax the lake dangerously. if there are any substantive conservation efforts underway, i have been oblivious to them. the palazzo and the other megacomplexes still water nonnative plants daily, right after they hose down their sidewalks to the strains of julio iglesias duets. the consequences i saw from the air were a little sickening.

lake mead is a meandering affair, with arms and fingers running up canyons all along its crooked perimeter. and now it looks like a ring-tailed lemur has curled its tail around the entire shoreline. as far as the eye can see, the steady receding of the lake is evident in the black and white striations that rise up where the water stops. it’s tough to judge distances from 20,00 feet above, but i’m guessing the lake is about 50 feet below its full level of 25,880,000 acre-ft. (one statistic i saw put the current level at 11,090,000 acre-ft, for the sake of perspective.) even with the help of periodic infusions of la nina water, the trend is toward persistent drought levels.

in response, the city of las vegas has floated the idea of MORE to solve the problem. as in, piping MORE water from other parts of nevada to replenish lake mead...

i landed and got to attend a screening of a great little movie called YERT: Your Environmental Road Trip . it’s a fun, informative and ultimately hopeful document that follows three friends who visit all 50 states in 52 weeks, seeking out highlights of what people are doing to create a sustainable future.

it was inspiring and i learned about a phenomenon called Jevons Paradox. looking at historical documents, the english economist Jevons determined that when an economy achieves efficiency and allows its population more leisure time, that country’s use of resources actually increases dramatically.

and i couldn’t help but think that nowhere is there a more observable scale model of this phenomenon than in the meadows, where leisure activity is the engine of the economy, and that economy has nearly reached perfect efficiency.

all these millions of people participating in this fabricated economy of manufactured fun, sucking the life out of the host environment at an ever-increasing rate...

even if i had lots of money to burn and the free time to burn it in. even if i thrilled to think that i might be the 1 out of 20 people that ever even beats the house once. even if i thought barry manilow or marie osmond or celine dion deserved a closer look. even if i liked the idea of doing all this under one noisy, garishly-lit roof (yes, they light the roofs, too, for the benefit of the helicopter tour folks) where everything was handled in advance for me and all i had to do was show up and empty my pockets, and i never had to see the light of day or the stars at night (which you can’t, because of the light pollution), even if i found all this as fun as i am told i should find it... even if...

i apologize for being a curmudgeon, but that still does not sound like the kind of fun i want any MORE of.

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