I’m recovering from a bit of overstimulation, which always happens after a trip to Las Vegas. After my last trip, I declared it to be my last trip to that place, but when good friends invite you to go, and you want to be part of their celebration, you go. This trip meant staying in a nice condo, a meal at the Mandarin Oriental, a good show and almost no crowds. Since this cocktail of activities was unlike anything I’d experienced in Vegas, I accepted the invitation.
For a few hours on the drive from Los Angeles, you see nothing but desert and mountain ranges, then suddenly you see the top of a building, then another, and finally all of Las Vegas lies before you. I am the only one in the car whose heart doesn’t flutter, and I am not screaming, “Vegas, baby! Yeah!” However, I admit that approaching Las Vegas is a unique experience. One moment you think you’ll never get out of the desert, and then the next you are suddenly entering a city that has seemingly risen from the sand at that particular moment. You can buy Prada and Louis Vuitton, which is bizarre when you consider how useless these luxury items would be in the wilderness just a few miles away.
Within that city the vast majority of people are transient. They’re either coming or going, or they’re living in the moment between arrival and departure. Toss the bags in your room, grab your money and get out the door. I don’t think any trip to Vegas has allowed me more than 10 minutes in the room before running out for the next few hours. Even when some of my traveling companions are big-time couch potatoes at home, when they get to the Strip, they’re not in their rooms long enough to turn on a television.
On this trip, the current season of Downton Abbey was winding down, so I had to ask myself what would someone like the dowager countess think about the throngs of people walking along the Strip, entering and exiting the many casinos along the way? The DC couldn’t imagine the smoky darkness that is illuminated by the flashing lights bouncing off the many shiny surfaces. She couldn’t say, “I’ve had quite enough” and expect to be heard over the din of machines making their rhythmically asymmetric ding-ding-ding/dong-dong noises.
These vast spaces contain dissonant choruses of staccato bells and beeps warring against the sustained arias of sirens, shouts and ringing as they announce occasional winners. There is no way to make a hasty departure through the islands of blackjack, roulette and craps tables. Even before you reach the exit, you find yourself distracted by the restaurants and chain coffee shops sending messages to your subconscious that the casino has everything you need. Food and beverage are needs to be met, but we can do without sleep. There are no windows or clocks anywhere to give you a sense that time has passed. If you catch yourself yawning, just head to the coffee shop for a double caramel macchiato.
There were four of us on this particular trip, and most were lucky. One guy won a thousand dollars within a spin or two on one of the games. I’m not much of a gambler. I quickly get bleary-eyed from the slot machines, and I hate the smoke. I’m notoriously thrifty (some have said cheap), so I never play more than I can afford to lose, if that. However, the people-watching in Vegas cannot be beaten.
For some people, this trip is a once-in-a-lifetime dream vacation. They have built this city up in their minds, have saved all year for it, and blow into town with dreams of wild times and winnings. If you haven’t been and you decide to go, you may be disappointed to discover that you’ve missed out on the days when men played blackjack and roulette dressed in sleek suits while their women stood next to them in elaborate dresses that were shaped by restrictive undergarments.
Our blackjack table was infiltrated by a drunken ass wearing a Duck Dynasty t-shirt, and his wife was some frowsy bleached blond who looked much older than her years thanks to the steady stream of smoke wafting around her. He was one of those small-town people who don’t get out very much. My grandmother was like this when we took her on trips. She was proud of her state and of her little town, and she would declare where she was from with the confidence that you had heard of it and would be impressed.
Our interloper looked like an escaped cast member from Duck Dynasty. He is an example of the modern tourist: comfort first. He would never dress like the Rat Pack because he cannot imagine them in his world. If reality television has taught him that the modern man of means wears long beards and wallows in the ignorance of his fellow countrymen’s behavior, then two months of missed shaves and clothes for cleaning out the garage are de rigueur.
There was no mystery to our interloper. We could hear him declaring his Oklahoma origins three tables away. His confidence had been bolstered by booze and a few winning hands. We had not realized that his wife was seated amongst us. I’m not sure if the sight of four males sitting around her roused him from his stupor, but he hastily made his way to our table like a beast that senses a rival’s challenge in the wild. He was so drunk that he didn’t realize we couldn’t be less interested in this Angie Dickinson that time had forgotten.
“Here now! Scooch on over so I can get my big fat ass in here!” He was trying to slide into the raised chair, but he knocked it over. He had chips in one hand and a stale bloody mary in the other. He was at the horns of a dilemma while trying to decide what to set down and where. I watched our friend Mark whose expression was complete disgust. I could tell he wanted to have some fun at my expense, so he asked Mr. Oklahoma where he was from. I held my breath. All I needed was to discover common acquaintances or worse—common relatives!
Thankfully, Mr. Oklahoma hailed from a small town that I have never visited, and I breathed a sigh of relief when I knew that we had no “people” in common. Mark seemed uninterested in pursuing a line of questioning that would reveal my connection to Oklahoma, as our interloper was now situated at the end of the table. On the first deal, he was dealt the 21 that would’ve been Mark’s. In unison, we got up and left the Oklahomans to the dealer.
To contrast those whose Vegas visits are few and far between, are those who live within driving distance. They may go several times a year, and have been going since they started organizing their own transportation. They’ve no doubt had wild times and winnings, or perhaps only wild times, but I get a clear sense that they want to recapture a certain feeling. Pinpointing that feeling is hard for me because “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” was true before the ad campaign.
Two of my friends have been known to say, “I remember when eight of us came here one time and got a room. We must’ve been twenty-one because I remember Mary could drink. We didn’t get much sleep that weekend, but we had the best time.” What did you do? That seems like a normal question. “I don’t remember. I know that we went over to the Golden Nugget and gambled for a few hours. I don’t remember what all else we did, but we drove home on Sunday, and the traffic on the fifteen was backed up for miles.” Unless everyone is a blackout drinker, my guess is they’re not telling the whole story.
You don’t have to be 21 to have a wild time. Walk through any number of casinos to see hundreds of people spending their kids’ inheritance to know that debauchery is not wasted on the young. LouWanda Bowers used to teach children’s Sunday school back in her prime. She spent Saturday nights fashioning biblically themed games out of construction paper for her students. She told bible stories with such verve that she could captivate a classroom of eight year-olds that had binged on cookies and juice. Then she retired.
Her son was living in Riverside with his family. He convinced her to move out west and be near them. The assisted living facility offered all sorts of activities and day trips, which enabled her to see and experience the area’s historical sites. Once she had exhausted the local color, she was bored until the opportunity arose to go to Las Vegas.
“I’d love to see one of those wonderful shows!” she exclaimed. Agreeing to board the big white charter bus was the first step on a slippery slope. One toe was in the water when she deposited a roll of nickels in a slot machine “just for fun.” Lady Luck smiled on her innocence, and she ended up taking home a hundred dollars. She dined out on that story for months, telling it to anyone who would listen. She made fifty on the second trip, but she lost money when her son took her one weekend. That’s when she began chasing the dragon.
Then the cigarettes came out of hiding. LouWanda had secretly smoked all those years back in her hometown. No one had ever seen her with a “cancer stick” to her lips. She masked the smell with Jean Naté and Certs. She liked teaching the kids because in those days they didn’t know enough about cigarettes to associate Miss Bowers’s odd smell with smoking.
By her tenth year in assisted living, LouWanda had to bring her portable oxygen tank to the casinos. She had long ago enrolled for a points card, which provides special perks and loyalty benefits if you have the thing plugged into one of the slot machines while you sit hypnotized for hours and spin and spin and spin. LouWanda’s son had been transferred to Denver a few years earlier, so she moved to Nevada since there was nothing keeping her in California.
People-watching gives me something to do in Vegas, and I like to make up back stories for people I imagine are named LouWanda Bowers. To walk through a casino and find gamblers like her affixed for hours to mauve chairs with cracked vinyl seats makes me happy since there are no Rat Pack dressers with their ladies. One particular LouWanda held a succession of burning cigarettes in her lips with her oxygen tubing coming out of her nose. Left hand was on a series of buttons, and her right hand hit “maximum bet” over and over. Because her points card was inside the slot machine and attached to her blouse by a retractable cord so that she wouldn’t forget it, she appeared to be sustaining her life while hooked up to some crazy psychedelic life-support system.
The prize on this trip goes to the woman who appeared to have recently had a tracheotomy. She was about 80 and was walking woozily with three men who appeared to be in their late fifties. She bobbed between them with her bandaged neck and its unmistakable hole. She was so obviously out of it that I thought she was drunk in the middle of the day. Then it struck me that her tracheotomy could’ve taken place that very morning. She had probably put the procedure off for a long time until one of her sons finally said, “Mama, if you do real good with your surgery today, we’ll take you over to Circus Circus, and you can play the slots while me and Bud play some craps.”
© 2014 Patrick Brown