The fundamental difference between Las Vegas and Reno is that, in Vegas, people disguise their loneliness through lust. In Reno, people are merely lonely. Which itself is a sad thing. But at least Reno’s rudimentary loneliness is a pure form. It isn’t an emotion occluded by the most ridiculous (yet invisible to the participants) of masks, with all of this blunt kabuki theatre aided and abetted by the casinos’ perplexing labyrinths, atavistic pit bosses and false incentives. (Sign up for the One Card and you’ll get comped! Maybe. But only after you’ve fed the casinos with about two hundred hard-earned American dollars without any cash return.)
Anyway, this Vegas lust I’m talking about takes on many forms: lust for cash, lust for the human body (whether through disparate carnalities directed towards one’s partner or the endless reminders of the flesh that are de rigueur for the Strip), lust for what America considers sinful behavior. The latter type is particularly interesting. When one considers the entire spectrum of human history, the aberrations themselves don’t stray all that far from the natural course of deviant human behavior. From the savage conversations I overheard at various craps tables, it seems to me that there is a barely withheld desire to throw off shackles and race pell-mell into debauchery. It is there in their rude treatment of the cocktail waitresses. I observed one man who did not tip a waitress once, even when he was $200 ahead, and who regularly asked the waitress, “Get me another Coor’s, you cunt.” It is there in how easily amused many of these gamblers appear to be by throwbacks to a more liberated time. I played one slot machine called “Fortune Cookie,” which featured a racist Asian chef caricature who, of course, mispronounced English and grunted all sets of two-letter words (such as “Po Po”) with a brio designed to attract the type of person who probably pulled the wings off of a buterfly as a child. I was quite amazed by this, but I was perhaps more perplexed by how the large man standing behind me thought this was the funniest thing he’d seen since American Pie. I then immediately abdicated the machine to him.
It seems to me that the United States, being a fairly hilarious mess of contradictions, is still governed four centuries later by some offshoot of the initial Puritanical impetus that got us all here in the first place. Perhaps Vegas serves as a wakeup call that Americans aren’t nearly as civilized as they pretend to think they are. I should point out that we were one of the last nations to give up slavery and that we regularly fail to provide our citizens with the kind of welfare and socialized medicine common in other nations. Perhaps people come here because this apparent “deviance” is not only discouraged within their native environments, but somehow tied into a residential home’s property value. Will a stigma against an atheist neighbor who likes to hold wild orgies at his split-level hacienda take off about ten thousand bucks from an assessment? You tell me. But I truly believe that Vegas serves as a refuge for those not permitted to be dissolute in their native environments.
The signs in Vegas are more grammatically correct (and decidedly brighter) than Reno, but at the expense of giving the many thousands who daily roll through this libertariantropolis a false sense of entitlement. Only in Vegas could Carrot Top find a steady income. Only in Vegas would the Bellagio’s bombastic founts be considered a thing of beauty to be observed across a eight-lane thoroughway rather than accepted as the living cartoon this aquatic monstrosity truly is. Only in Vegas will you find Hispanic day laborers employed through the dissemination of pamphlets and other literature, all of it advertising questionable strip clubs and the like. The day laborers snap their fingers as you walk along Las Vegas Blvd. and they appear to be there 24/7. (I was accosted by a few around 2 AM.) They are some of the hardest workers to be found on the Strip.
One feels dizzy, nay completely disoriented, in the hopeless mesh of casinos at the intersection of Tropicana Avenue and Las Vegas Blvd. One does not so much walk back to one’s hotel room, but engage in a mini-Bataan Death March through sounds and crowds that show no sign of abating. The hotel room is the only refuge. Wild sights and cries can be found at all hours. I watched a long-haired shirtless man walk along the strip in forty-degree weather. He was without shoes. Whether he was hoping for a literal metaphor that expressed very clearly how he had lost his shirt, I cannot say. He walked with considerable celerity.
Personally, I answered a wolf call from across the street in Las Vegas Blvd. and I shamelessly danced to the Go Gos while walking past the Tropicana. Now these are things I would likely do on any happening evening. But then I am considered to be something of a Macadamia nut amongst peers.
If I have learned anything from watching people in Vegas, it is this: Perhaps some of our folkways need to be reassessed so that, every so often, people can answer a wolf call without fear of social retribution. If Vegas can help us affect this goal amongst the population at large, serving almost as an urban halfway house between those who would refrain from fun (for whom I genuinely weep) and those who have learned to embrace their inner goofball, then I fully support its continued existence, however ridiculous its makeup.
© 2005, Edward Champion. All rights reserved.