I Don’t Get Las Vegas

Vegas

In television shows, and maybe in real life, people assuage their worries and ennui with spending. Whether it’s fancy shoes (women on TV) or fancy cars (men on TV), Americans are depicted as firm believers in the therapeutic catharsis of commercial exchange. I’ve never truly understood this. I personally don’t like spending money just to spend money, and for most people I know, financial issues are the leading cause of anxiety, so spending is a singularly bad way to ward them off. But that must be just another area in which I am out of step with the American mainstream: for a work conference, I recently spent a glorious 59 hours in Las Vegas, a city that seems to have no other purpose than making people spend money, and the folks I saw there were eating that shit up.

Las Vegas Boulevard, commonly known as the Strip, is a singular example of government and private industry working together to extract every last dollar from every last man, woman and child in America. The sidewalks themselves are in on the scheme, refusing chaste visitors’ desire to walk in a straight line alongside passing cars and instead channeling them away from traffic, over ersatz lagoons, past full-sized pirate ships, and into casinos and shopping malls and mock-ups of Venice, complete with illuminated ceilings painted like the sky and quaint wine stores in the Italian style, with American-style prices on all the bottles, of course.

Everything useful – bathrooms, ATMs, simple cups of coffee – is purposely marooned beyond a sea of video slot machines, each one lazily worshipped by a glassy-eyed elderly person in a rented mobility scooter, and flanked by card tables staffed by bored, voluptuous dealers in preposterous outfits. The ATM in Caesar’s Palace offered one “fast cash” amount, $200, and a user fee of $5.99.

In addition to the convolutions of route that push pedestrians (and mobility scooter drivers) to tables and slots, the sidewalks themselves are replete with ways to spend: outdoor bars offer strong, fruity cocktails in foot-tall plastic vessels, and people in all manner of interesting costumes – or lack of costumes – stand around smiling, waiting for people to pay to take pictures with them. None of these people, not the showgirls, the muscly, shirtless cowboys, the rail-thin Spider-Man or the paunchy, forty-something guy in a Native American headdress and tighty-whities, has a sign or price list. The tourists just know that they should pay.

And they do pay, even when the appeal is not immediately apparent: after a lengthy off-Strip sojourn, I was riding the city bus back toward my hotel, marveling at how wonderfully mundane everything looked in non-tourist Vegas, when a man got on the bus painted entirely gold, carrying an all-gold lawn chair and a gold broom. It wasn’t clear to me what his shtick was — at that point, his shtick was riding the bus to work — but I ran across him later on the Strip, and several people were waiting to take pictures with him while he sat there. A gold guy in regular (gold) clothes and a (gold) lawn chair. With a gold broom.

Everyone I saw on the Strip who wasn’t working seemed to be having a hell of a good time. Couples walked hand in hand, each smiling and clutching a colossal plastic cocktail chalice in the free hand. Giddy groups of young women came into glancing, excited contact with similarly bright-eyed and tipsy gaggles of young men. At the craps tables, crowds erupted in shared happiness, exchanging high-fives whenever the good thing that happens in craps happened. It’s like cee-lo, except that the place where the dice land on the table matters, right?

All of this gave me the impression that Americans have long since internalized what science recently reported: that we get more happiness from buying experiences than from buying things. And really, that is great, and I am glad that so many people from so many places can come together and buy their experiences together happily. What I don’t understand, though, is what, exactly, everyone there was experiencing.

Vegas is traditionally known as a repository of sin, but it struck me as the most carefully structured, overseen, and controlled sin possible. If there is anything like danger on the Strip, other than bankruptcy and alcohol poisoning, I didn’t see it. Hell, they don’t even let you cross the street half the time, forcing you to use elaborate footbridges over major thoroughfares, which conveniently channel you into to more casinos and shopping malls.

Is it exciting to see a big steel and concrete structure, landscaped to look like a volcano, that “erupts” promptly every half hour? To see scale replicas of several New York landmarks, or an indoor, miniature version of Venice, or a conventionally handsome young man who will let you touch him only enough to have his arm across your shoulder for a photograph?

I understand the appeal of proximity to attractive people, but in Vegas, the proximity seems like an illusion: these are actual real people who have to earn a living, and have figured out a way to do that shirtless or naked or in a skimpy cocktail dress. Later, they will wear ordinary clothes and take the ordinary bus home – not the double-decker tourist bus (“The Deuce”), but the RTC 201 out Tropicana Avenue – or walk past the taxi stand at the back of the hotel and head to the employee parking lot a half mile away. They will go home to their husbands and wives and children and mortgages and medical bills and ordinary troubles. Wander into the darkness west of the Strip early in the evening and you will likely encounter, as I did, mothers and children leaving visiting hours at the Clark County House of Detention. Even gambling, which surely presents at least the thrilling possibility of a sudden windfall, seems less exciting when you know that your opponent is a specially trained professional backed by an army of surveillance cameras, analysts, and security personnel.

In the end, it seems as though the experience that you spend your money on in Vegas is spending your money. I doubt that standing beneath a half-scale Eiffel Tower or a two-thirds-scale Arc de Triomphe is anything like the real thing. I’d hazard that it doesn’t even get you as close to feeling the je ne sais quois of being in Paris as seeing a decent movie about Paris. But it costs a hell of a lot more. You are not any closer to the scantily clad blackjack dealer or the naked stripper than you are to a porn star you might watch online; you just spend more for the privilege of seeing and not touching.

I could spin this into a meditation on the moral and cultural decline of America, on consumerism for its own sake, on a vacation Mecca that seems not to provide real experiences so much as duplicate the already vicarious experience of watching television. In that regard, I’d mention GoPro videos on YouTube, and the growing popularity of watching athletic or dangerous feats from the perspective of the person undertaking them. But the truth is that I know a lot of otherwise sensible people of modest pleasures and nuanced opinions who like Vegas a lot. Unfortunately, none of them has been able to explain it to me, other than to say that it is “fun.” I like fun! But everything appealing about Vegas seems like something I could do much more cheaply and with an equal measure of diversion at home – and I live in Hartford, Connecticut.

Can one of you dear readers lay out for me what it is that is so great about Las Vegas?

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