I love Las Vegas, perhaps more than I should. It’s nothing more than a Disneyland for adults, complete with booze, food, and our own flashy arcade games. It’s overpriced and crowded. I can’t spend more than five days there without feeling a layer of cigarette ash and gin oozing from my pores. Still, I love it there.
I’ve been visiting Las Vegas since I was about twelve. Growing up in Los Angeles, Vegas was always just a quick car trip away. I still remember those drives through the desert: the stops in Barstow for In-N-Out Burgers, the glimpse at the tallest thermometer in the world. But the drive wasn’t as magical as the actual visit. While my dad would gamble at various casinos, I would walk up and down the Strip, ducking into the cheesiest tourist traps I could find. I bought tasteless shot glasses before I could drink and packs of cards from casinos I couldn’t visit.
I would even sneak through the casinos, hoping I wouldn’t get caught. I loved to lurk behind the players, watch their blackjack hands unfold, while I counted to myself. My favorite, though, was the craps table. The game was a mystery I could never solve. The players would throw down their chips, yelling “yo” and “come” and “eight the hard way” and I watched the dealers stack the chips neatly on the green felt squares. I would often hold my breath at the throw of the dice, watching them tumble and land, as the players cheered and swore. I still don’t understand the game.
When Aaron and I visited Vegas last week, I spent most of my time watching other people. I watched the gamblers at their tables, the tourists tramping the Strip, and the locals working the crowds. On this trip, I paid special attention to the people we aren’t supposed to see. There were more homeless people than I remember before, holding cardboard signs asking for mercy, for change, or for a drink. A man we met in the elevator at the newest casino, Cosmopolitan, said, “They spend billions of dollars building a new casino, but we can’t solve world hunger.” His teeth were whittled down to points, black from tobacco. I watched the cocktail waitresses, in their various uncomfortable uniforms, hoist drinks above their heads and tuck singles into their tip cups. I watched the dealers, as they motioned to their pit bosses for more change, for cutting players off alcohol, for their cigarette breaks. I watched the mostly immigrant workers, handing out flyers for strip clubs and escort services, snapping the flyers with their fingertips, just to grab the tourists’ attention. At night, they sounded like crickets, as we walked past them.
Now that I live in the Midwest, I can only visit every few years. I’m always astounded at the changes. This time, it was the new City Center, with flagship designer stores and generically luxurious hotels. Before that, it was the Wynn and Trump. Before that, it was the Venetian, I think.
I miss the Vegas that I hold in my memory, the vaguely seedy desert town. I miss the stores that sold a dozen donuts for 12 cents, just so you plugged a few quarters in their slot machines while waiting for your order. I miss the casinos I wasn’t supposed to walk through, because they felt like a foreign country. Now, they feel ordinary. I miss having all that waste (the spent electricity, the water for fountains, the gallons of alcohol) so close to me, just a quick decision away. I can never hop into my car, drive through the night, and end up there, with everyone else. I can only visit for a week, and lay the current version of Vegas, above all of my other versions, like a multiple exposure. I can only align the edges and look for the places they overlap.
* The title of this post comes from a line I overheard from a ticket hawker on the Strip.