Loving and loathing Las Vegas

When we arrived in Las Vegas, our second eyeful looked like a Potemkin skyline featuring the Chrysler, Empire State and United Nations buildings, along with Grand Central Station, the main building at Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, among other New York City landmarks.

Except these were for-real buildings, albeit one-third or so the size of the originals, substantially constructed of steel, concrete, stone, brass. They had been fused together by some miracle of architecture, engineering—and most of all torrents of imagination and money—into a monumental hotel-entertainment-gambling complex named “New York, New York.” A roller coaster pirouetted outside atop, in between and around this collection of faux landmarks like a bee buzzing a patch of very strange flowers.

“New York, New York” as seen from the crenelated
ramparts of the “Excalibur” across the street.

So if you want a hotel room on the tenth floor of the “Chrysler Building” overlooking the “Statue of Liberty,” the staff at “New York, New York” probably can arrange if at a certain price which like most attractions in Las Vegas will be a multiple of whatever you planned to spend.

As Stew gazed at this visual mayhem he made perhaps one of the most naive observations ever made by a visitor to Las Vegas: “That roller coaster is inappropriate, out of place.”

“The roller coaster?” I said. “I think just about everything about Las Vegas is going to be garish and inappropriate. That’s the whole idea.”

This exchange came after our first eyeful of Las Vegas, when we checked into the Luxor Hotel, a thirty-story glass replica of an Egyptian pyramid topped by a searchlight pointing straight up into the night sky.

To accommodate the shape of the structure and still leave space for a huge interior atrium required some tricky engineering to run the elevators, by now old and rattly, on a track at a 45 degree angle on each corner of the pyramid. Giant replicas of pharaohs and other faux-Egyptian bric-a-brac also are impressive at first, but tired and dusty close-up, like most of this 21-year-old Vegas landmark. If Ramesses II were still around he would have had ‘er redone long ago.

There’s an endless number of things to mock and snicker at in Las Vegas, particularly if you think of yourself as some well traveled sophisticate. Yet by the second day, Las Vegas—in all its shameless and over-the-top garishness—begins to win you over: Like one of Liberace’s ermine-trimmed capes, this place is both awful and awesome.

Greatest fountain show on earth, every fifteen minutes. 

How could anyone think to cram pyramids, the Statue of Liberty, the bell tower from Venice’s St. Mark’s Basilica, high-rise buildings topped with Roman cornices, medieval turrets and the Eiffel Tower within a couple of miles of each other? That’s what Las Vegas is all about, where building codes may cover fireproofing and structural integrity but leave everything else to the imagination of the builder.

Still, as you watch the breathtaking fountains of the Bellagio Hotel—located in a lagoon several acres wide and across the street from replicas of the Eiffel Tower and the Paris Opera—shoot up thirty or forty feet into the air and then dance and wiggle seductively to music playing from hidden outdoor speakers, your snickering fades as your mouth begins to drop.  Whoever thought of this spectacle and how many tens of millions did it cost? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=401wv1eKc2c

If Chicago is “The Windy City,” Vegas is the city of “What the —-!?”—and proud of it—and no amount of snootiness can keep you from eventually laughing with Las Vegas rather than at it.

“Honey, tonight why don’t we take a Venetian gondola
 with a singing gondolier to a Mexican restaurant?”

As you wait for the light to change, on you right there’s a fully decked-out Elvis impersonator driving a 1956 pink Cadillac with plates “56 Elvis.” Following that comes a tan-colored Humvee driven by a beefy guy in military drag: He’ll take you to one of several shooting ranges outside the city where you can shoot pistols, machine guns and AK-47s to fulfill all the Rambo fantasies your credit card will tolerate.

Young body, very old trade. 

By the entrance to the Caesars Palace shopping mall and all its classic nude statuary, a very well built and very contemporary man wore nothing but a Stetson, cowboy boots and diminutive Lycra shorts with stars and stripes. He was plying a very old trade I suspect.

But for all its outdoor dazzle, the true life of the city beats in air-conditioned, windowless caverns where machines constantly blink, chime and bang in a trashy, round-the-clock cacophony designed to keep gamblers gambling.

At the Luxor the gamblers were low-budgeteers—cutoffs, flip-flops, raggedy tees—who drank beer and chain-smoked while absentmindedly pushing the Play button on the slot machines. The casino looked like a place where the poor come to get poorer.

At Caesars Palace and the Bellagio, though, there were tuxedos, cocktail dresses and a more upscale ambiance but the visual and audio racket of the machines was the same. At the Paris Casino, amid Parisian landmarks such as art nouveau Metro entrances and an amazing crepuscular trompe l’oeil sky, we found a Mexican Day of the Dead slot machine with Spanish instructions.

That was where Stew lost seventy cents faster than he could even say “­¡Híjole!” or figure out what he was supposed to do. I’d warned him about those one-button bandits.

Stew’s Doom, where he lost 70 cents. 

Despite differences in the clientele the bones of the casinos seemed predictable as if they followed some agreed-to guidelines based on science, tradition or gambling psychology. Ceilings were relatively low, except at the Paris Hotel, and there were no windows or clocks in sight. It felt as if casinos embraced you and didn’t want to let go as you coursed through the huge hotels just trying to find the way out.

I’d fantasized about the majestic, tuxedoed ambiance of James Bond casinos but what we found in Las Vegas was closer to the utilitarian hustle of a train station. There was an occasional whoop or holler but generally these gambling venues seemed joyless and mechanical.

Even if you don’t gamble or drink, Las Vegas restaurants—justifiably reputed to rival any anywhere—can amaze and perhaps trigger a call from your credit card company to check it’s really you spending all that dough.

“Twilight” in “Paris”

Our lack of reservations and preparation only allowed us a couple of nibbles. Dinner at the Eiffel Tower Restaurant, overlooking the Bellagio fountains was memorable and so was a late lunch the next day at one Bellagio’s maze of restaurants. Almost every name chef is represented in town: Mario Batali, Bobby Flay, Wolfgang Puck, Gordon Ramsay and on and on. Our simple Bellagio lunch, at Todd English’s Olives restaurant though excellent, came to $150 with no alcohol and a shared dessert.

Entertainment and shows ranged from world class to a few crusty numbers like Donnie and Marie Osmond, and even the almost 70-year-old Rod Stewart. When is Florence Henderson coming to town?

We opted instead for the Broadway musical Jersey Boys at the Paris Hotel and the “Le Reve” at the Wynn hotel both of which were amazing. Criss Angel’s show at the Luxor was awful. Ticket prices are Broadway-like, around $150 a piece or more.

What we’d forgotten was that Las Vegas has long been a legendary venue for both weddings and divorces. Indeed, there were giggly couples in formal wedding gear going up the escalators, at the shopping centers, wandering through hotel lobbies and meandering dreamily on the sidewalks. There were also sour-faced folks shuffling around kicking the lampposts who must have been the ones in town for a divorce, or those who lost their rent money at the slots.

Amid the Roman statuary of Caesars Palace’s
gardens, a young Mexican girl poses for her
Quinceañera portrait. 

Most hotels have wedding “chapels” typically decorated with voluptuous flower arrangements erupting from huge marble vases and classic architectural touches in faint taupe and mauve palettes meant to suggest a dignified atmosphere but which instead reminded Stew of funeral parlors.

Two weeks after we left Las Vegas, and about a year after Stew and I got married in Massachusetts, Nevada lifted its ban against same-sex marriages, imposed in 2002 by voter referendum. I always thought it ironic that libertine Nevada which derives most of its income from gambling, boozing and legalized prostitution had such a fit of religiosity regarding people of the same sex getting married.

If we had known Nevada was going to legalize same-sex weddings we could have been married at Caesars Palace instead! http://www.caesarspalace.com/weddings/caesars-palace/clv-wedding-specials.html

I can envision Stew and I solemnly marching to our nuptials through one of Caesars’ many lobbies or shopping malls, wearing matching togas and sandals, with sprigs of olive branches around our heads, with some of our friends alongside throwing rose petals on our path.

People in Topeka or Peoria might wince and howl in disapproval but hey, in Las Vegas they would hardly turn their heads away from the slot machines and if anything, might give you a thumbs-up.


6 thoughts on “Loving and loathing Las Vegas

  1. Anonymous

    $150.00 for a ticket to a show! It was $17.00 for dinner and the show of Olivia Newton John. It's been longer than I thought. I enjoyed this post.Francisco


  2. “The casino looked like a place where the poor come to get poorer.”I have often thought the same thing. And it saddened me. But I suspect that is just another bit of our shared snootiness. To me, the best thing about Las Vegas is that it allows people to be as good as they choose. It is what we call freedom.


  3. Crazy Rita has left a new comment on your post “Stew and Al do Vegas”: I'm glad you boys had fun in Vegas. Luckily, I live in that area between Topeka and Peoria, also known as Iowa, one of the first states to allow same sex marriage. Stew agrees with your point. He was born in Dubuque and raised in Cedar Rapids.Al


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